Nirmala Sitharaman’s misinformation (‘How not to run a programme’, IE, May 9) on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which employs one in every four Indian rural households every year, is disappointing. Consider these facts. For the first time in over two decades, the increase in rural consumption (a proxy indicator for income), at 19 per cent, has outpaced the increase in urban consumption. Rural poverty declined at a rate three times faster between 2004-05 and 2011-12, than the preceding decade (1993-94 to 2004-05). Farm wages in real terms increased impressively post-MGNREGA. Let us now look at Sitharaman’s claims.
Claim 1: The scheme failed in its clearly defined goal of providing employment during the lean months, supplementing income and reducing poverty.
Evaluations, as well as data from the field, suggest that almost 65-70 per cent of the MGNREGA’s employment is provided during the lean agriculture season (January to June). These trends demolish Sitharaman’s claim and also indicate that the MGNREGA is a supplementary source of employment and does not substitute employment in agriculture.
It provides income for poor households when they most need it, that is, when they are hit by adverse weather conditions, shocks, etc. As per a study conducted in Andhra Pradesh, during drought, each unit mm of deficit rainfall suffered could be correlated with around Rs 20 in additional MGNREGA wages. In 2009-10, when India experienced one of its worst droughts, the MGNREGA provided a safety net and recorded its highest average persondays in the year.
Claim 2: The MGNREGA has not provided the necessary succour for the unskilled rural poor.
MGNREGA-notified wages have increased across states since 2006. An analysis by Jean Drèze observes that in the 2000-1 to 2005-6 period, the growth rate of real agricultural wages was around 0.1 per cent per year for men and negative for women. Between 2005-6 and 2010-11, the growth rate for agricultural wages for men increased to 2.7 per cent per year and for women to 3.7 per cent a year. The wage increase is tilted towards women. The MGNREGA has reduced traditional gender wage discrimination, particularly in the public works sector. A recent report released by Crisil concludes that the increase in rural consumption is driven in significant part by the MGNREGA.
Claim 3: There were only half-hearted attempts at monitoring the scheme
The MGNREGA, with over 13 crore job cards online, has arguably the largest database for a public programme. All information related to the scheme’s implementation, right from details of the beneficiaries, to works undertaken and funds provided is available in public domain.
The ministry of rural development has strengthened the transparency and accountability mechanisms of the scheme. Gram Panchayat level audits are being carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of the MGNREGA. The concurrent evaluation network for third party independent and regular monitoring of the scheme has been set up, a first for a government department. In 2011, the ministry published Sameeksha, an analytical anthology of all major research studies on the MGNREGA.
Claim 4: CAG reports reveal several shortcomings in programme implementation
Sitharaman’s selective citing of important documents leads her to draw many misleading conclusions. Her primary concern is that there has been no follow up on the first CAG audit. However, the performance of the scheme post audit is worth noting. The women participation rate stood at 52 per cent in 2012-13 as compared to 48 per cent in 2011-12. There has been an improved work completion rate: Around 98 lakh works have been completed since inception, a rate of 54 per cent (as against 30 per cent noted by the CAG).
As per the CAG beneficiary survey, 63 per cent of the beneficiaries confirmed that the MGNREGA helped them avoid migration in search of work. Seventy one per cent of those surveyed felt that useful assets have been created. The CAG also concludes that around 90 per cent of the beneficiaries were either casual labourers or small and marginal farmers. This is indicative of the fact that the MGNREGA is reaching the poorest and most marginalised.
Is Sitharaman aware that three BJP states have been spending 16 per cent of the total expenditure on the MGNREGA? For each of these states, the women participation rates are at 45-50 per cent. In the last four years, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have shown an average of around 50 per cent of wage earners partaking in the MGNREGA work belong to SC and STs. Eight years on, the MGNREGA is well on its way to achieving its goal.
The writer works in the office of the Union minister for rural development