Kerala’s achievements have long been celebrated by development economists — high literacy rates, including among girls, low infant mortality rates and so on. There has also been a spate of writings highlighting the ills of Kerala society. Critics have pointed to the high rates of suicides and feminists have also raised difficult questions. While there might be some truth in these critical perspectives, when one compares Kerala with other Indian States, there is no doubt that it has got something right. The contrast between the north Indian States of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh and the southern States (Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu) always strikes me while doing fieldwork.
Last December, a trip to Kerala to visit districts that had been nominated for the Central government’s annual NREGA award (for the effective implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) brought home that contrast once again. I visited a few MGNREGA worksites in two districts — Alappuzha and Thrissur — and had discussions with workers with the help of MGNREGA officials. Without suggesting that the implementation of MGNREGA in Kerala is faultless, this article highlights some of the positive aspects of Kerala’s experience.
The first thing that struck me was the large-scale participation of women in MGNREGA. According to MGNREGA records, the share of women in MGNREGA employment is higher in Kerala than in any other State — about 90 per cent. I also saw something that one does not learn about from official data: assistant engineers, overseers, data entry operators, panchayat presidents, mates, BDOs — there are plenty of women in almost every conceivable post. Further, a “skill ladder” already exists in some ways. For instance, in Alappuzha, I met a MGNREGA worker who had been elected a block panchayat member.
The second heartening observation was that in Kerala, one sees gram panchayats playing a real role in the planning and implementation of MGNREGA. The employment guarantee act has provisions for grassroots planning and implementation. In many north Indian States, Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are involved in implementation, but rarely play an active role in the planning process. In Kerala, by contrast, PRIs are strong, with impressive physical infrastructure — a gram panchayat office in Kerala resembles a block office of some of the northern States. I was told that “everything” goes through gram panchayats. PRIs, it seems, prepare annual plans for each panchayat and follow the prioritisation decided in the gram sabha. Block panchayats have standing committees on different subjects. The block offices we visited were bustling with activity and, often, block panchayat members were present. And no, this was not just window dressing for a gullible visitor from Delhi — my presence was often ignored at the block offices.
Third, I was excited to see the range of MGNREGA works and the quality of assets being created. This is a truly remarkable feature of MGNREGA in Kerala. In Thrissur, canal maintenance and sluice gate maintenance were the big NREGA works. Desilting of canals enables them to function for irrigation purposes, and also raises the water level in surrounding wells. Another case of good work was the cleaning — desilting and de-weeding — of ponds in Alappuzha. In Thrissur, the cattle breeding farm under the Veterinary University offers its land to MGNREGA labourers, to grow fodder for the cattle. Soil conservation works and water harvesting works are undertaken with some scientific inputs. For soil conservation works, thought is being given to enhancing nitrogen content by adding certain leaves. Mud compacting is also done to enhance soil quality. Vettiver (“magic” grass) is planted along desilted and de-weeded ponds in Alappuzha. Apparently, vettiver reduces the pollution in ground water (including ridding it of pollutants from a brewery in the vicinity) and prevents soil erosion (I was told it can only be removed using JCB machines!).
With Kudumbashree groups (a State government “initiative for poverty eradication through networking of women's groups”) taking a keen interest in MGNREGA, every possible kind of convergence is taking place. Kudumbashree groups are learning how to farm for the first time. They lease in private land and use MGNREGA labour for some of the agricultural operations. Quite a lot of land development work is undertaken on private and public lands. In Alappuzha, Kudumbashree groups grow vegetables, possibly paddy also. Produce is sold locally or Kudumbashree groups are linked with the “vegetable board” for sale in larger markets. The involvement of Kudumbashree groups and the availability of adequate technical staff (agricultural scientists, engineers, etc.) have allowed such creativity to flourish.
Workers’ testimonies about what MGNREGA meant to their lives were the most satisfying part of this brief visit. Here is one small example. I held a short group discussion in Pariyaram Gram Panchayat (Chalakudy Block, Thrissur) with a group of about 15 workers. The worksite supervisor (“mate”) was a woman. As we went around the circle, this is what I learnt: Omana Hamsa (who worked 40 days last financial year) bought sand to renovate her house; Jayathi (48 days) undertook house repairs; Shaila Sadanan (35 days) bought gold for her children; Shirley Sunderesan uses it towards repayment of a bank loan of Rs. 50,000 for her house; Kamalam Revi and Sheela Balu who had bought a cow on a Kudumbashree loan are repaying it with their MGNREGA earnings; Anitha Sajinan uses her wages for her daughter’s college education and the mate, Jancy Balan, uses hers to pay her son’s computer course fee. There were two male workers as well: Vinayan said he used his MGNREGA earnings to repay a house loan his mother took four years ago, and Kuttan bought himself a gold ring!
The districts I visited were probably the best, since they had been nominated for the national award. Even in the best districts, there were grey areas in the implementation of MGNREGA in Kerala: for instance, “convergence” of MGNREGA sometimes seems to boil down to subsidising labour for private farmers, without additional employment generation. The participation of men is low primarily because of the “low” MGNREGA wage (compared with the market wage). So they prefer other work. The labour market seems to be segregated along gender lines. Delays in wage payments plague the programme even here, though not to the same extent as in the northern States. District officials candidly admitted that payments are made in 20-25 days — well over the mandatory limit of 15 days.
During this visit to Kerala I experienced, first-hand, how near-universal literacy can reduce social distance thereby altering social dynamics and enhancing accountability. Two small incidents illustrate the point. As I introduced myself to the workers at Pariyaram Gram Panchayat through the BDO, I said I wanted to learn about what they did with their MGNREGA earnings. In an attempt to break the ice, I looked at the two male workers and said, “They must have used their wages to buy alcohol” (a comment I hear often elsewhere). The BDO, also a woman, did not find my comment amusing and put me in my place — “it’s not like that, madam,” she said. In the north, BDOs usually distance themselves from the workers and align themselves with visitors. My comment would not have been challenged by a BDO in many other places. The BDO and my roles were reversed here, with the BDO standing up for the labourers. In another incident, after an onlooker corrected my spelling of the name of a village, I felt I was being more conscious while making notes. This suggested to me how similar pressures must be at work for the local administrators too — not just for the implementation of MGNREGA but in all public spheres. For me, this was the most important insight from my Kerala visit.
(Reetika Khera teaches economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.)