By: Diego Maiorano
The new government is planning to reform the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Officials in the ministry of rural development say the emphasis will shift from employment generation to the construction of durable assets. The rationale behind this choice is that the demand for employment under the MGNREGA is apparently declining. Hence, it would be better to focus on the quality of the infrastructure rather than on maximising employment. While there is no doubt that rural India urgently needs high-quality infrastructure, assuming that the demand for employment is declining would be a mistake. A recently introduced policy in Andhra Pradesh shows that the demand side of the MGNREGA needs to be strengthened too.
Indeed, the MGNREGA is in bad shape. Official data shows that the average personday per household declined from 53.99 in 2008-09 to 45.86 in 2013-14. The decline has been even sharper in the five “star” states (Andhra, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu), from 59.60 in 2008-09 to 48.24 in 2013-14. Most bureaucrats across India attribute this decline in employment generation to the declining interest of people in demanding MGNREGA work. Some even argue that the decline in employment generation is a positive thing, as it shows that the scheme is working well: people are being lifted out of poverty and therefore they do not need the MGNREGA anymore. If wage seekers do not seek employment, this narrative goes, there is little that the administration can do.
This line of argument overlooks one simple fact: study after study shows that the demand for MGNREGA employment is not declining. My own survey conducted in Andhra and Rajasthan shows that an overwhelming majority of the 1,200 wage seekers interviewed would like to work more under MGNREGA. This applies to those who completed the full 100 days of work too. The decline in employment generation is mostly due to bottlenecks and faults in the supply side.
There is one state where this narrative is virtually absent. This is Andhra. The main reason why it is absent is that, so far, the state has implemented the MGNREGA in a rigid top-down manner. The demand side has been completely ignored, while the supply side has been improved significantly.
However, the state government has now understood that, in the words of the MGNREGA director, Karuna Akella, “It doesn’t matter how much we improve the supply side, we must strengthen the demand side too.” To do so, the rural development department has recently introduced a policy that might be worth replicating.
In short, the state government is unionising MGNREGA workers. Each wage seeker is part of a group of 20 co-workers (called SSS groups). The SSS members select two representatives among themselves, one male and one female. The representatives of all groups in a given gram panchayat form the village federation. This is nothing less than a village-level union of all MGNREGA workers.
Each federation has two representatives, one male and one female. They meet the sarpanch and the field assistant (a contract employee who manages the MGNREGA at the village level) monthly. At these meetings, all MGNREGA-related problems are discussed. Most issues can be locally resolved. Other problems need to be brought in front of the officials at the mandal (sub-district) level, where the representatives of all village federations meet the authorities every month. The mandal level meeting is a grievance-redress mechanism. But some problems, in particular delayed payments, are not easily solvable. These depend on administrative bottlenecks at higher levels. However, if federation representatives claim that payments are delayed, the mandal authorities file a request to the district office to release the funds. Before the introduction of the federations, wage seekers’ complaints were simply ignored.
The federations changed the way wage seekers see the MGNREGA. One of them told me, “We can now demand work. If we don’t get it within 15 days we will be paid even if we don’t work!” I have conducted research on the MGNREGA in four districts of Rajasthan and five of Andhra and this was the first time that I met a wage seeker who was aware of the unemployment allowance. The federation representatives are given the task to collect demands from wage seekers and give them dated receipts. This not only reverses the state’s previous supply-driven approach but changes the way in which wage seekers see the MGNREGA altogether.
The introduction of the federations made things easier for administrators too. Field assistants, technical assistants and mandal officials all say the same thing: before the introduction of the federations, they were overwhelmed by complaints. Now, wage seekers approach their federation representatives that are able to solve most issues themselves; if not, they will convey the complaints at the monthly meeting in a structured and more efficient way. In sharp contrast with national and state trends, the allocation of MGNREGA employment increased dramatically in those mandals where the federations were introduced on a pilot basis in 2012. Now the policy is being extended to about half the mandals of (undivided) Andhra Pradesh.
The new government, which has promised to reform the MGNREGA, should seriously consider promoting Andhra’s experiment in other states. The MGNREGA, despite its flaws, contributed to the reduction of poverty in rural areas during the UPA years. According to the Planning Commission, poverty declined by 15.3 percentage points between 2004-05 and 2011-12. Significantly, the decline has been higher in rural than in urban areas. The contraction of employment generation through the MGNREGA, coupled with the slowdown of economic growth, could result in a deceleration of this virtuous process.
But the new government should also try to strengthen the demand side for another reason. The scope of the MGNREGA goes much beyond the provision of employment or the construction of much-needed infrastructure in rural areas. It is an opportunity to change power relations at the grassroots and invest in long-term development.
The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Liège, Belgium