Digging holes, filling them up

As it completes 10 years, there is enough evidence to show that India needs the MGNREGA

Written by Reetika Khera | Published:February 3, 2016 12:08 am
MGNREGA, MGNREGA scheme, MGNREGA news, MGNREGA result, MGNREGA policy, india schemes, india policies, india news A large number of MGNREGA projects failed because a culvert was not built to prevent the road from being washed away or a pond was dug at the top of a slope. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Nearly a year ago, the prime minister made a statement in Parliament about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). He said: “My political understanding tells me, don’t ever stop MNREGA… because MNREGA is a living monument to your [the Congress’s] failures. After 60 years of independence, you had to send people to dig holes.” This widely criticised speech received a perceptive response from Akhil Katyal, a poet:
Wells are made by digging a hole,/ Digging a hole is what yields a canal, Digging a small hole,/ Allows us to plant a sapling, and if/ You do not dig a big hole to lay the foundation, No matter how big the building/ It will fall.

This resonated with me because the first time I saw the deepening of a pond in Rajasthan in 2002, I was dismayed. What I saw was a field where workers were moving earth from one point to another. When I revisited the same field after the monsoon, however, I realised it was a pond with water for cattle and other domestic needs. It was an important lesson for my urban eyes and mind.

Though asset creation was an important objective of the MGNREGA, in the early years, attention was focused on first generation issues — establishment of the required administrative machinery and corruption-free implementation of the scheme.

Recently, as a member of a committee to select award-winning districts and states, I had the opportunity to learn about MGNREGA projects from over 30 districts and visit five districts.

The first category of mud works includes clearing water supply channels (for example, ditches along public roads) and de-silting and deepening ponds and tanks. In Nadia (West Bengal), digging an irrigation channel through fields has helped to bring the fields under cultivation. Earlier, they could not be used because they got submerged with rainwater. In Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district, clearing bushes and grass in existing channels ensured better drainage. Fewer bunds were breached during the recent flood. De-silting and deepening of ponds and tanks is likely to improve groundwater recharge in the long run while providing water harvesting and storage structures in the short run.

Bundi (Rajasthan) in the Chambal river area, is a well-watered district in an otherwise water-scarce state. A pre-existing canal irrigation system had been lying in disrepair as bushes and silt had not been cleared for years. Each year, water disputes between upper and lower villages led to the deployment of police pickets. The MGNREGA has been used for the maintenance of the canals, ensuring better water supplies to farmers and fewer disputes.

Similarly, rural connectivity works, undertaken on a massive scale within the MGNREGA, improve economic opportunities for all, especially by increasing the access to markets for farmers, lead to the initiation of some form of public transport (such as shared tempos), and make government services (such as hospitals) more accessible. The creation of public roads also reduces disputes on the right of way, especially for Dalits.

In the Sundarbans, there were three interesting categories of mud works. One, building embankments to prevent high tide and flood waters from inundating habitations. Two, flood protection works, and three, for the longer term, the MGNREGA is being used for mangrove forest rejuvenation to reduce erosion. Protecting mangrove forests has positive spin-offs for environmental issues as well. These are examples of mud works with no material expenditure. The MGNREGA allows up to 40 per cent of total expenditure on material. Fish farm ponds (a hole filled with water) are examples of works with material costs. In several states (including Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and Tripura), working with the fisheries department, fingerlings have been introduced into MGNREGA ponds. Net profits (deducting the cost of feed, fingerlings, water and electricity from revenues) ranged from Rs 1.08-3.2 lakh, in the cases we saw. The cost of the project was between Rs 70,000 to Rs. 2.76 lakh, implying a healthy rate of return.

Four different types of plantation and afforestation works have been undertaken. These include plantations on the roadside, on forest or panchayat land, within the premises of public buildings and orchards on private lands. A guava orchard in the North 24 Parganas district yielded sales of Rs 3,600-7,200 over three months. The project cost was less than Rs 15,000.

In Chitradurga (Karnataka), the MGNREGA has been used to recharge public borewells, an important source of water supply. In Jharkhand, one lakh wells were sanctioned through the MGNREGA. A recent study of 100 randomly sampled wells shows that the completion rate is very high, the economic rate of return is a healthy 6 per cent. They contribute to better nutrition as farmers start growing vegetables (instead of, say, rice or maize) near the wells.

The MGNREGA has also provided fertile ground for creativity. In Tamil Nadu, a remarkable experiment with solid waste management is underway. In 2,000 peri-urban gram panchayats, MGNREGA labour is used to collect segregated garbage from homes in a tricycle cart, brought to a yard where bio-degradable waste is composted. Non-degradable waste is either sold or, in the case of plastic, the gram panchayat sells it to a self-help group at Re 1 per kg, which shreds it for resale at Rs 30 per kg to road contractors who use it in road-laying.

In Pali (Rajasthan) and Bankura (West Bengal), MGNREGA labour is being used for brick-making. This experiment has huge implications because, if such bricks can be booked as a labour cost, more material intensive works can be undertaken through the MGNREGA.

The examples given here are mostly the best practices. They are not representative
of the whole picture. A large number of MGNREGA projects failed because a culvert was not built to prevent the road from being washed away or a pond was dug at the top of a slope.

Sadly, there is no largescale study focusing on the cost-benefit analysis of MGNREGA works. The positive experiences listed here demonstrate the potential of doing useful work through the MGNREGA — with and without material — especially if the labour has better technical support.

The writer is ICCR visiting professor at King’s College, London and associate professor of economics at IIT Delhi

For all the latest India News, download Indian Express App now

  1. H
    Haradhan Mandal
    Feb 3, 2016 at 9:30 am
    It should not be left in the hands of Govt officials (or even with elected Panchayat officials ) alone. It is doomed to fail then. It is the NGOs - which made it success - wherever they were involved in it. And better/greater and sustainable result was achieved whenever it was imaginatively linked for synergy with livelihood activities of the women and local women self-help groups.
    Reply
    1. H
      Haradhan Mandal
      Feb 3, 2016 at 4:30 am
      There is (was and will be) a caste/cl bias for anything in India. MGNREGA is not an exception. It is the URBAN upper cl and middle cl , the upper caste , who are against MGNREGA and similar programs. The now 'famous' speech "because MNREGA is a living monument to your failures" - were applauded loudly by this particular vote-bank. W lots of people were engaged in finding demerits and s in the 'waste' of govt money in it - as if it(waste of Govt money and corruption) never happens in India. It has proved to be a success WITHOUT EXCEPTION wherever any good NGOs were involved (or allowed to be involved) locally with MGNREGA job-seekers.
      Reply
      1. K
        Krishna Bhagawan
        Feb 3, 2016 at 10:34 am
        NEREGA should concentrate on productivity. If farm labour can learn to use machinery, they will be useful in construction and mechanisation of farms.
        Reply
        1. P
          Prapur
          Feb 3, 2016 at 6:16 pm
          Who cut funds from MGNERGA and why after 10 years of help from governement they are still poor? Who stole poor peoples hard earned money? Congress ruled for 60 plus years and we have nothing but poverty. Indira hi tried to eliminate poverty at what cost and how much corruption increased during congress rule?
          Reply
          1. S
            sree
            Feb 3, 2016 at 7:03 am
            Dear Author from London, Look at from a different perspective. All the activities listed by you should have been done by using Machinery, which would have given much higher income to the laborers working with those machines. The fact that after 67 years of mostly congress rule, these activities being done with manual labor, that too with a view to alleviate m hunger, in itself is " a living monument to your [the Congress’s] failures. After 60 years of independence, you had to send people to dig s.". Please note digging s is not a failure, but sending people to dig s, instead of machines is a sign of failure.
            Reply
            1. V
              Vish
              Feb 3, 2016 at 3:54 pm
              This god-awful programme proved to be a death knell for farm labour. A future sensible govt should reorganize MGNREGA, to include private or co-operative farm labour availability, which will reduce the ongoing corruption by one particular party.
              Reply
              1. K
                K SHESHU
                Feb 3, 2016 at 11:05 am
                MGNREGA hs been one of the fw succes stories that India can boast of being implemented at least to some extent. This must be carid forward with modifications and some concete policies.
                Reply
                1. T
                  toku thomas
                  Feb 3, 2016 at 6:05 am
                  I don.t think MGNREGA lowring the curroption practice in some area like northeast region specialy those who against the MGNREGA upper and middle cl they are enjoying the schem result impact is directly goes to account of congress cor.
                  Reply
                  1. T
                    Think
                    Feb 3, 2016 at 4:00 pm
                    That is correct, there is no incentive for farm labour. The issue is that farm laborers do not own any land and there is no way they will become rich by being farm laborers. They feel that only the farm owners become rich. Unfortunately it is a vicious cycle they are not able to come out of as they lack the skills or education to succeed. If their children get some education and training, they can try to break out but it is difficult.
                    Reply
                    1. A
                      Ashok Sridharan
                      Feb 3, 2016 at 4:49 am
                      NREGA, had it been used to create rural infrastructure, would have changed the face of India by now. The agrarian distress currently underway would have never happened. Unfortunately, as the CAG pointed out in 2013, projects worth a staggering 4,070.76 crores were still incomplete after 1-5 years. I'm not even talking about the leakages which helped alleviate the poverty of politicians and babus. Modi was at least partly right.
                      Reply
                      1. A
                        Ashok Sridharan
                        Feb 3, 2016 at 4:51 am
                        Nitish Kumar- the man who's allied with Lala Prasad Yadav anf Congress- and he's going to be the next PM? God save India then.
                        Reply
                        1. D
                          Damaru Prasad
                          Feb 3, 2016 at 12:49 pm
                          With poets like the one quoted here India does not need poets like Pradeep! What a shame!! Hope he also pens some lines on open defecation in India.
                          Reply
                          1. R
                            Rudhra
                            Feb 3, 2016 at 5:49 am
                            My limited point is: from economics perspective, it is essential to ask: money being a scarce resource, are we making the best use of the 40,000 crore being spent on it? Are we creating durable ets worth that much money? What is the opportunity cost of the investment being made? Could we have not put it in infrastructure fund to create roadways and Dedicated freight corridors? Lets not forget this sceme is for rural jobless UNSKILLED folks. So even with all their heart if they work, their work is mostly going to be shoddy.
                            Reply
                            1. G
                              Gopal
                              Feb 3, 2016 at 11:08 pm
                              Thousands of crores has been spent and all we get is anecdotes on which to base a policy. The trouble is that our academics and economists are ideologues. There is mive leakage but you wont find it mentioned here - because she sees her job as selling a policy instead of presenting a balanced view that could be used for decision making.
                              Reply
                              1. I
                                indian
                                Feb 3, 2016 at 8:55 am
                                1. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Indian urban incomes shot up due to liberalisation and other opportunities. However, rural incomes were shackled by price and export controls on agri produce. It was necessary to reduce the income disparities and there is nothing wrong with such an intent being addressed through MSP raises (for farm owners) and MNREGA (for farm labour and other rural folk) - et creation is an incremental benefit. In many parts, the farm labour could demand higher wages due to the MNREGA alternative. 2. If we are to wait for schemes which are corruption-proof in this country, no scheme would ever get launched. A leaking bucket is better than no water at all.
                                Reply
                                1. K
                                  K M
                                  Feb 2, 2016 at 11:39 pm
                                  The author did not make any attempt to bring out whether the benefits accrued to the society in any way match with the huge amounts spent. The main argument against MNREGA is its misuse. The scheme is similar to getting water using a sieve; you do get water to your home but after making a disproportionately huge efforts. Is the country ping thr' a golden age to sustain such nonviable , vote bank oriented schemes?
                                  Reply
                                  1. K
                                    kamath Ramesh
                                    Feb 3, 2016 at 11:17 am
                                    Govt must ensure the wages are directly credited to the labors account rather than dispersing cash. This would eliminate the corruption and mismanagement by middle man.
                                    Reply
                                    1. K
                                      kamath Ramesh
                                      Feb 3, 2016 at 11:15 am
                                      Schemes like MNREGA are shame on any country. Even after 70 years of rule people have to be propped up with such kind of schemes. Do any advanced countries have such kind of schemes? Modi is right in saying it is the epitome of the congress miss rule. Only unfortunate part is there is no option but to continue with it for some more years. It is sheer wastage of human resources as we are using them for unproductive work just to pay them some wages. Nobody can deny that some part of the labor may have been used of productive purpose but the sole aim of this scheme is to pay the wages to labors and for that get some work from them. At least BJP govt should try to use them more productively in their rural projects.
                                      Reply
                                      1. K
                                        kulaputra kulaputra
                                        Feb 3, 2016 at 1:07 am
                                        So much of my money wasted for so little. How can one praise lack of accountability and distribution of largesse as though India were a personal fiefdom.
                                        Reply
                                        1. N
                                          Nishant
                                          Feb 3, 2016 at 4:31 am
                                          Poor Ms. Reetika, everybody expected that this article will cry against the MGNREGA (a scheme kept alive as a symbol of shame). But, Ms Reetika tried to present something positive about the scheme backed with facts and observations. But that's not what we were hoping for. We will happily cry for farmer suicides and then cry foul over a scheme spending money over creation of ponds, irrigation channels. Our moneys spent over doing things at grroot level, what a shame. What a shame people in Bundi got ponds for their cattle, what a shame farmers in Jharkhand were able to grow vegetables and earn good money. They should have rather died of starvation and shame, to make a better headline for the morning newspaper. Ms Reetika has exposed a fraud that has been committed with our tax-payers' money. We need bullet trains, so that we can be spared of the farms from window seats. Next time write an article explaining why Ranbir Kapoor should not be sad about his latest break up and you will have more positive replies.
                                          Reply
                                          1. R
                                            rkannan
                                            Feb 3, 2016 at 3:46 am
                                            The article highlights some activities where MNREGA has been successful. However, the sucess or failure of a scheme has to be gauged not by a few events but by the overall impact it has had. The article fails to provide real statistical data to justify the le.
                                            Reply
                                            1. Load More Comments