Before his tragic demise, the Union minister for rural development, Gopinath Munde, gave a clear indication of the new government’s priorities on MGNREGA. Both these priorities are vital: using the programme for the creation of productive assets to combat drought and poverty and ensuring timely payment of wages. More than two decades of liberalisation and high economic growth have left India with enclaves of prosperity surrounded by vast hinterlands of deprivation which show poor human development indicators. So a thrust on social inclusion is much needed. And MGNREGA is a scheme to be justifiably proud of, despite all its shortcomings. With a total expenditure of Rs 2,53,560 crore since its inception, MGNREGA has created 1,698 crore person-days of employment — half of this has gone to women and half to Scheduled Castes and Tribes. More than 10 crore bank accounts have been opened for wage disbursal, an unprecedented scale of financial inclusion. The difficulty, however, is that so long as people don’t get paid on time, a huge question mark remains over the scheme, making it unattractive to wage-seekers and ineffective in stopping distress migration.
The minister’s perspective allayed apprehensions of a fundamental re-engineering of MGNREGA to morph it into an unconditional cash transfer scheme. Cash transfers can put money in the hands of the poor but cannot create the assets that they need, which are ultimately the foundation of an inclusive growth process. While such transfers make sense for pensions and scholarships, they are no substitute for social sector provisioning. This is what the chief ministers of states such as Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have realised. These states are among the best examples of MGNREGA being used in convergent mode to generate sustainable rural livelihoods.
To put the growth versus inclusion debate to rest, let us look at some important facts. The Rural Labour Enquiry of the National Sample Survey confirms that a very high proportion (50 to 70 per cent, or even more if we focus on tribal areas) of agricultural labour households actually own land. If constraints on their productive capacities are eased by well-designed investments, such as the creation of water harvesting structures, land levelling and works to conserve soil and moisture, which maximise employment in the construction phase and create durable assets, they will contribute to growth. This should help us view the poor not as mere passive recipients of dole, but as potentially active participants in the growth process. Such growth will also be fundamentally equitable and sustainable.
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The debate on cash transfers also ignores the several firsts that have made MGNREGA a cause célèbre the world over. The largest employment guarantee programme in the world institutionalised an innovative way of tackling corruption through social audits long before the Lokpal agitation. In Andhra Pradesh, these audits have helped recover several crores from errant personnel. The process is aided by an imaginative deployment of computer software, a tightly integrated end-to-end system, itself a first in the country, which helped AP monitor all stages of work and flag delays, particularly in wage payments. In Uttar Pradesh, poor, Dalit women have come out in large numbers to form federations (nari sanghs) and demand their rights of the state. Apart from gaining incomes, they are imbued with a new consciousness, which makes them insist that their panchayat leaders and officers are accountable to them. What could define the mantra of governance better than this vibrant participatory democracy led by women?
However, in the hurry to create productive assets, let us not forget that the choice of technology is of paramount importance. Thus, recent suggestions that the labour to material ratio should be 4:6 in favour of material ignore the fact that India has a celebrated experience of durable and well-engineered assets that improve agricultural productivity through employment-intensive works based on a watershed approach. It is also the experience of MGNREGA that material procurement is an avenue for leakages, so such changes are an invitation to corruption. The new list of permissible works, introduced as part of MGNREGA 2.0, creates enough space for a judicious mix of labour- and material-intensive works, while maintaining the ratio in favour of labour.]
The perceived fall in demand for work does not stem from MGNREGA realising its goals, leading to a declining need for employment, but from deficiencies in implementation, created primarily by a human resource bottleneck. The “cluster facilitation team” concept of MGNREGA 2.0 correctly targets the most backward blocks of the country, deploying human resources and capacities to raise demand for MGNREGA work, ensure improved planning, timely implementation and disbursement of wages. Better implementation of MGNREGA will ensure that it makes itself redundant over time, such is its beauty. To cut down the fiscal burden, therefore, there is no need to amend the act and de-universalise MGNREGA. Let us instead simply concentrate on the most backward and needy blocks and make MGNREGA work better there. More rigorous recording of demand and expeditious payment of wages will ensure the programme fulfils its historic mandate
The author is convenor, National Consortium of Civil Society Organisations on MGNREGA