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