By Ashok Pankaj & Mondira Bhattacharya
The NDA government’s approach towards MGNREGA — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act — has differed from that of the previous UPA regime in one significant way: There is greater emphasis now in the building of “individual household” assets, as opposed to “community” assets, under the scheme that provides 100 days of guaranteed wage employment annually to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
In 2012-13 and 2013-14, the last two years of UPA rule, individual assets constituted hardly a fifth of the total number of works taken up under MGNREGA. The share was even lower, at 7%, in relation to the value of assets created. But under the Modi government, the share of individual assets has averaged 38% in numerical and 15% in value terms during 2014-15 to 2016-17. In 2016-17 alone, as much as 46% of the total assets (completed, ongoing and approved) were individual. Again, the corresponding share in cost terms may have been only 18%, as community assets by their very nature cover larger populations and, hence, require more money. This is not so with individual assets; cattle sheds cost just Rs 10,000-15,000, while farm ponds or dug wells can be built well within Rs 2 lakh.
The above figures indicate an almost deliberate shift in the thrust of MGNREGA asset creation to the individual household. This is as against the earlier UPA approach that focused mainly on community assets, notwithstanding persistent criticism over their quality, productivity and utility. The current article’s focus, though, is on how the new emphasis on individual assets creation can be harnessed towards achieving a doubling of farmers’ incomes by 2022 — a goal set by Modi himself at a public meeting in Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) on February 28, 2016. We use the term “farmer” in a broader sense to include landless households with homesteads.
Schedule-I of the MGNREGA Act classifies four categories of works — A, B, C and D — that can be undertaken in the programme. Out of the four, only Category B pertains to “individual assets”. Para 5 of the schedule, moreover, identifies the “vulnerable section” households, on whose lands or homesteads such individual asset-creating works can be taken up. These include Schedule Castes/Tribes, nomadic and denotified tribes, other below-poverty line families, women- and physically handicapped-headed households, and beneficiaries of land reforms, Indira/Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana and the Forest Rights Act. “Small and marginal farmers” become eligible beneficiaries only after exhausting the above identified households. The programme also covers landless agricultural households, but a majority get excluded as they ostensibly have no land to offer for asset creation.
A survey carried out by us shows the sheer transformation impact that a scheme like MGNREGA can have on rural incomes – especially of small/marginal farmers and also agricultural families having only homesteads — through creation of assets at the individual household level. Our study, undertaken during the 2016-17 agricultural year, covered 240 households across six districts: two each in UP (Mirzapur and Shravasti), Rajasthan (Sawai Madhopur and Banswara) and Tamil Nadu (Krishnagiri and Cuddalore). The sample comprised small and marginal farmers (92%) as well as landless households (8%), while the individual assets included dug wells, farm ponds, mud bunding works, horticulture farms, livestock shelters and fish ponds.
We found the individual assets built under MGNREGA to contribute 35.24% of the total annual revenue of an average beneficiary household in Sawai Madhopur. The corresponding average percentage contribution was 24.47 in Banswara, 61.21 in Shravasti, 22.27 in Mirzapur, 37.01 in Krishnagiri and 26.51 in Cuddalore. The individual impacts varied, depending on the type of assets created, apart from agro-climactic conditions, land and other household endowments. In the arid Sawai Madhopur and Banswara districts, the individual assets were largely farm ponds, dug wells and other water harvesting structures, besides cattle sheds. This was the case in Mirzapur, too, while in Shravasti, the works extended to providing individual bore wells for irrigation. In Krishnagiri, beneficiaries got animal sheds, whereas the most common asset created in Cuddalore, a coastal district, was fish ponds.
The most tangible effect of individual asset creation through MGNREGA was increased crop acreages. This worked out to an average of 0.53 acres for works involving land levelling and fallow/wasteland development, with the higher planted area being mostly in traditional foodgrains. The average dug well, farm pond or mud/field bund, likewise, helped boost crop acreage by 0.41 acres. But irrigation assets also resulted in augmenting yields and aiding diversification, particularly cultivation of vegetables, oilseeds and cotton. Beneficiary households reported substantial increases in gross incomes from fish ponds and animal sheds, too. An asset-wise crude cost-benefit analysis revealed the ratio to be 0.61 for fish ponds, followed by 0.53 for horticulture (planting of fruit orchards, flower saplings, etc.), irrigation (0.34) and livestock shelters (0.32). The ratio for land development was only 0.15, which, however, rose with irrigation availability.
The above results suggest that individual assets creation under MGNREGS, through a decentralised production-centric approach, can go some way in meeting the target of doubling farmers’ income. Land development and irrigation assets created on the lands of small and marginal farmers can, indeed, confer the triple benefits of increased acreages, higher yields and crop diversification.
The programme should, at the same time, not ignore landless agricultural households. The implementation agencies can, and must, include them through proactive selection, as was done in Krishnagiri district. All individual assets need not require farm land; they can as well be created on homesteads, with cattle sheds or piggery/goat shelters being a good example. Landless households could also be provided assets on community lands where they have usufructuary rights. Any scheme for doubling of farmers’ income that excludes the landless — who make up about 56.4% of India’s rural households — would be lopsided at best.