In a drought year, the news “UPA flagship scheme MGNREGA back on track, job numbers hit five-year-high” (Indian Express January 6, 2016) is reassuring. Because especially for drought, MGNREGA provides the necessary purchasing power by giving opportunity to earn wages and also creates assets for mitigating drought like waters storage structures with soil and water conservation treatment structures.
Studies have proved that this is reaching out to the real needy and the assets are supporting the small and marginal farmers. The important part of this news item that it has emphasized the fact that, one of the factors for revival is ‘timely release of funds’. This is one way of acknowledging the importance of proper procedures being in place for implementation of the program.
For the revival to continue and further reach beyond the present figures, the data given in the news item tells a story. For one, the average number of days per household has been hovering between 40 to 53 person-days per household. This means it has just crossed the half way mark of the 100 days of entitlement under the Act. So each of these households who worked could have worked double the number of days than they did. And then there is need to reach many more families too.
Second, the delay in wage payment has reduced substantially from 72% to 53%. This means earlier days, one in four transaction of wages were in the given stipulated time period which has improved to one in two. Yet, this means half of times there is delay in wages to the laborer. This is the laborer who has come to MGNREGA, almost as an employment of last resort (in all probability who has not been allowed to put in demand, could not get receipt for the demand, does not get wage slips, does not get the passbook updated like other bank customers) and still does not get paid within 15 days as per the Act.
The compensation for delay, which some States have put in ensures some fair deal. This is related to present procedures as laid down by the Ministry and as being implemented by the States. But the meta question is why have some states performed consistently well and some not so well. And if we look at an additional data, by linking the expenditure of the State with the rural population under poverty then the correlation is not so strong.
MGNREGA is not being utilized by only the ‘population under poverty’ but is being utilized by all the vulnerable groups especially the small and marginal farmers who are landed laborers. So this is not targeted towards the ‘identified’ poor nor is it meant to be so. However, this table shows that if implemented well the not so poor States have shown that MGNREGA uptake is good. So obviously the poorer States need it more and yet the uptake is low.
There are two possible aspects to this paradox. One is apparently the will to implement, the political will. But even if that exists, the next challenge is to set up the systems of delivery. The mechanism of implementation demands that there are adequate personnel deployed, that they are trained regularly and consistently, that there are enough Government Orders to give operative clarity in terms of rules and procedures and that there is enough physical infrastructure especially the IT set up.
States like (erstwhile) Andhra Pradesh have shown that putting this entire mechanism with end to end IT set up has enabled it to consistently perform well. Consider Bihar, with most of its population in rural area and poor ( second highest rural poor live here), it certainly needs MGNREGA more than it utilizes now (expenditure quite low, 10th rank). But the State capacity to deliver has to be enhanced for the uptake to grow as per the need.
If one closely follows Maharashtra’s graph, then it is evident that in the initial years it did badly, it picked up after 2011, when the State pro-actively brought in several enabling measures, the uptake steadily increased. But the political elite across the political spectrum, across the Panchayat Raj as well as State leaders think that MGNREGA is a ‘hurdle’ for the farmers and so the political will is all muddled up. This has influenced the bureaucracy to think that Maharashtra does not need MGNREGA in a big way and this in spite of the fact that the State ranks third in population under rural poverty amongst all the States in the country.
This scenario is proved to be devastating for the small and marginal farmers who are in majority and who are purely into rainfed farming. The IGIDR report of the assets in Maharashtra has clearly shown that the assets built under MGNREGA have proved to be useful to the small and marginal farmers who are labourers on the MGNREGA worksite and users of the asset. Therefore for further and sustained revival, the Ministry needs to monitor the performance but also needs to nudge the States where most of the poor live. This nudge has to be a friendly and helpful one, by supporting to build the State Capacity to implement. This can be a way of cooperative federalism.