How to reform and how not to

An impression has gained ground in recent weeks that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre is inimical to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Part of the reason for this is the notion that this was a “partisan” programme benefitting only a certain political dispensation. The short history of the programme makes it clear that this is patently untrue. Indeed, some of the best work under MGNREGA has happened in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States.

This year, the National Award for Leadership in MGNREGA Implementation went to the Government of Chhattisgarh. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh is a strong votary of the programme, and under his dynamic leadership, some of the most innovative work in implementing MGNREGA on watershed principles has been initiated. Nitish Kumar, as Chief Minister of Bihar, worked hard to explore imaginative, decentralised solutions to the flood problem, using resources available under MGNREGA. Tamil Nadu, under Ms. Jayalalithaa, has been one of the best performing States. And the Chief Minister of Odisha has taken important steps in recent years to make MGNREGA a success in the tribal regions of the State.

State inputs

It is clear that where the leadership has understood the potential of the programme, every effort has been made to make it more effective, and this is true across the political spectrum. I can personally testify to the remarkable inputs that almost all State governments gave to the committee set up under my chairmanship to reform the programme and create MGNREGA 2.0, which helped to introduce a large number of new productivity- enhancing works and build synergies between MGNREGA and agriculture.

This is not to say that the programme has been an unqualified success. Indeed, every effort needs to be made to reform MGNREGA, as the programme has been both a major success and a huge failure. The best way to reform such a programme is to study carefully the conditions that made it a success and also to undertake a diagnostics of its failures, so as to learn how best to fix it. The NDA government is rightly concerned with the many failures of the programme in not being able to generate more than 50 days of work per annum, in the poor quality of assets created, in the delays in payments to workers and also in the inability of the really needy areas of the country to take full advantage of the programme.


All of these problems need to be addressed. The best way to do so is to study where the programme has been able to deliver. I have in mind the thousands of villages where water harvesting structures have been created, agriculture has improved, nearly 100 days of work has been provided, distress migration has reduced and women have been empowered. MGNREGA is one programme where all this has been rigorously documented by scholars from all over the world. This research also throws up insights on the features that characterise locations where success has become possible: one, availability of strong technical support to the main implementing agency, the gram panchayat; two, capacities to undertake decentralised planning exercises and creation of a robust shelf of works; three, awareness among MGNREGA work-seekers of their entitlements and procedures under the programme; four, active and vibrant gram sabhas, which debate and decide the works to be undertaken and all procedures related to the programme; five, open and effective social audits that check corruption; six, accountable gram panchayats, where the leadership responds to the legitimate demands and grievances of the people; and seven, a system that ensures timely payment of wages.

A lot of what the NDA government is proposing clearly reflects a desire to learn from these successes and merits strong support. For example, the proposal to focus on the 2,500 most backward blocks of the country is a step in the right direction.

Regional backwardness

Chief Ministers have long emphasised the need to understand India’s regional backwardness in terms of blocks rather than districts. Many advanced districts in India hide pockets of backwardness and not all blocks in the so-called backward districts may be equally deprived. As Member, Planning Commission, I oversaw a remarkable exercise to rank India’s subdistricts in order of backwardness. The importance of this exercise for a programme like MGNREGA is that demand for work has been shown to be the highest in these most backward subdistricts. Hence, the NDA government has correctly sought to focus intensive participatory planning exercises in the 2,500 most backward subdistricts and also set up cluster facilitation teams there. These teams are multidisciplinary teams of professionals who will support gram panchayats in these 2,500 subdistricts to effectively plan and implement MGNREGA. The teams include social mobilisers who will help generate greater awareness about the programme among work-seekers.

This is an excellent example of learning from the successes of MGNREGA and I am extremely optimistic that this reform will lead to more effective implementation of the programme where the demand for it is the greatest. What should not be done, however, is to say that work-seekers in other areas of the country will not be provided work on demand. The very raison d'eˆtre of MGNREGA is that it is a legal guarantee for work. It is undoubtedly true that the attempt to universalise the programme in a top-down manner went against the spirit of the Act and also encouraged a proliferation of corrupt practices, in an eagerness to show expenditure on the programme, even where there was no demand for it. I describe this as the “U without Q” (universalisation without quality) syndrome that afflicts many of our flagship programmes. In the rush to universalise, we compromise the quality of work and at times create perverse effects, such as the incentivisation of corruption. For example, there are countless instances of labour-scarce areas in the country, where the pressure to spend under MGNREGA led to contractors, in collusion with bureaucrats, deploying machines for doing the work and fudging entries in job-cards of workers, who sat at home and pocketed part of the wages. To avoid such situations, it is imperative that the demand-driven character of MGNREGA be deeply respected. For the self-identification of beneficiaries is the most powerful element of the programme. But, by the same token, when there is demand for work, it cannot and must not be denied.

Wage-material ratio

Finally, to the vexed question of the wage-material ratio, which has been fixed at 60:40 under the programme. There is a notion that it is this ratio that has led to the creation of poor quality assets under the programme. That such a myth can endure in a country with a rich tradition of earthen engineering, where water security was traditionally provided to millions of people through earthen water harvesting structures, is a matter of great sorrow. Each of these structures was designed in a truly location-specific manner, based on a deep understanding and study of local geology, soil types, topography and rainfall patterns and based on intricate engineering techniques, designed and perfected over centuries of practice, deeply grounded in rich, local, cultural traditions. It is real testimony to how divided we have become as a nation that planners and policymakers, sitting in distant urban locations, show such deep ignorance of our rich social, ecological and cultural heritage, from which we have so much to learn. They also seem completely oblivious that the 21st century is seeking to make a break with energy-heavy, fossil fuel- based technologies and seeking to build with green materials.

As a matter of fact, excellent earthen engineering work has been done under MGNREGA, where care was taken to learn from these traditions and also to empower gram panchayats to understand the principles underlying this watershed approach. Changing the wage-material ratio in a blanket fashion has the inherent danger of converting this people-centred programme, into a contractor-machinery driven one, which would further weaken grass-roots democracy in India.

There is, however, a case to be made for permitting greater flexibility in this ratio in certain parts of the country, where material costs tend to be exorbitantly high: the Himalayan region, for instance, where transport costs are steep, or deserts where long distances need to be traversed. In such regions, lowering the wage-material ratio could actually enable more work to be provided under MGNREGA. This has been a long-standing demand of some States. Elsewhere, there is abundant scope for individual works with a lower wage-material ratio, because it is only the average that needs to be 60:40. Many such works were introduced into the programme by my committee and are doing very well on the ground. Thus, there is enough flexibility that has already been created. Doing more than what is warranted by these legitimate concerns, would be to compromise the fundamental power of the MGNREGA.

(Mihir Shah is a grass-roots activist who has lived and worked for 25 years in the tribal villages of Central India. From 2009 to 2014, he was Member, Planning Commission, Government of India.)

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Printable version | Oct 12, 2021 8:23:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/mgnrega-how-to-reform-and-how-not-to/article6561572.ece

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