The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has a significant influence on agricultural operations and cultivation costs. If its present focus on community works can be reoriented to proactively promote improvements on the landholdings of small and marginal farmers through the creation of durable assets, it will be beneficial for agricultural productivity and incomes.
Critics say that the MGNREGS draws labour away from agricultural operations and hikes up costs through increased wages. They hold that leakages and corruption have vitiated rural work culture and the assets generated do not justify the huge expenditure (budget outlay of Rs 33,000 crore in 2013-14). Supporters see a model of inclusive development, creating durable assets. The scheme is credited for mitigating distress migration, improving household food security, enhancing the bargaining power of rural labour, generating “green employment” and fostering climate-resilient agriculture.
The linkage of the MGNREGS with agriculture is in-built in the legislation. Permissible works include land development and soil conservation, water harvesting, irrigation provisioning, drought proofing, horticulture, tree-plantation and afforestation. Works under the MGNREGS can be taken up on both community and private lands. Small and marginal farmers, SC/ST and Indira Awaas Yojana beneficiaries are eligible for taking up works on their own lands.
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Some people think durable assets mean only brick and mortar structures. But a different school of thought recognises that a rejuvenated and replenished natural resource base — land, water, biodiversity — is an even more valuable asset. For the lives and livelihoods of millions of small holder farmers, pastoralists, forest dwellers, herders and fisher folk depend upon the productive capacity of these natural resources.
The thrust of the MGNREGS in the past eight years has been to open up works on community lands. The proportion, last year, of works taken up on private lands was a mere 11 per cent. This needs to be raised to at least 50 per cent. The impetus to agriculture will be triggered when there is greater asset creation on individual farms. Such a shift in emphasis would incentivise small holders to take up works leading to restoration and revitalisation of their own farmland, higher productivity and consequently more agricultural employment. Landless unskilled labour could benefit from the additional employment generated from small farms and also continue to supplement their income from the MGNREGS, albeit on a lesser scale.
The productive value of small landholdings could be enhanced further with material and technical inputs from effective convergence with other ongoing agricultural development programmes such as the National Food Security Mission, the horticulture mission, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and the National Agroforestry Policy. A study on the creation of assets on the lands of small and marginal farmers, SC/ST and Indira Awaas Yojana beneficiaries in Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh has revealed that almost half the households studied that sought employment under the MGNREGS and on whose land work was undertaken, did not come back to work on the MGNREGS the following year. This suggests that an increase in cultivable land, irrigation and cropping intensity on private farmlands generated additional agricultural employment to keep them gainfully occupied on their own farms. This needs to be studied in greater detail.
Studies conducted by the Indian Institute of Science and other international institutions and NGOs find that: a portion of MGNREGS wages is ploughed into the cropland through purchased farm inputs; investments are made in small ruminants, poultry and pigs; there has been a shift towards diversified, high value and more remunerative crops from traditional staples; credit worthiness for agricultural loans has improved; and the premise of the MGNREGS crowding out other forms of employment is not sustained.
Empirical evidence also points towards a rise in water availability and the area under irrigated crop production from making water structures; a shift in cultivation pattern from mono-cropping to two-three crops a year; improvement in soil quality and increase in soil organic carbon, leading to improved fertility and crop yields; and a decline in the livelihood vulnerability index of households.
If the MGNREGS works on private land are to gain momentum for creation of durable assets, some clear work areas emerge.
One, dug wells, farm ponds, recharge structures and irrigation channels help improve productivity and efficiency of water use. Value enhancement of dug wells occurs when the farmer acquires a water-lifting device through convergence with other programmes. Madhya Pradesh, with the highest percentage of works on individual land, has emphasised the creation of irrigation potential.
Two, soil in farmers’ fields is the basic material asset. Centuries of use and abuse has led to erosion, degradation and depletion of this finite and fragile resource. Replenished and restored soil fertility needs to be recognised as a durable asset under the MGNREGS. Protocols will need to be developed to quantify and document soil fertility improvement before and after the interventions. The concept has within it the nucleus of a “land-care movement”, which could be spurred by convergence with the sustainable agriculture mission.
Three, trees on farms are durable assets and need to be scientifically and rigorously promoted for their products — fruit, fodder, fuel, fibre, fertiliser and timber contribute to food and nutritional security, income generation and insurance against crop failure. Services provided by trees include nutrient recycling, carbon storage, biodiversity preservation, resilient cropping environments, prevention of deforestation, and enabling agricultural land to withstand extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, and climate change. MGNREGS convergence has been factored into the National Agroforestry Policy notified earlier this year. ]
Four, promoting asset creation on small holdings requires simpler methods of measurement and validation due to individual farmers finding it difficult to maintain records designed for large-scale community works, for example, elaborate muster rolls. An exemplar is the earlier Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme. This standardised the labour payment to be made to farmers working on their own lands, which was based on measurable farm output. Such practices contributed significantly to the state’s horticulture revolution.
Five, the door should remain open for out-of-the-box initiatives. For instance, linking the MGNREGS with the system of rice intensification (SRI), a technology practice known to increase yields while affecting significant savings in water use, seed and agrochemicals. SRI is labour intensive and lends itself to the prospect of including SRI as a permissible item under MGNREGS.
The writer is a former secretary to the government of India, ministry of rural development and the National Advisory Council