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Political competition for the greater good?

MGNREGA can only succeed if politics is taken seriously in the design of accountability mechanisms

Written by Raghav Gaiha |
April 23, 2012 3:11:22 am

MGNREGA can only succeed if politics is taken seriously in the design of accountability mechanisms

Does political competition enhance a poor person’s access to anti-poverty initiatives such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA)? Just as some economists believe that competition is an effective way to improve management and productivity,in politics too,some hold that political competition is better than single-party monopoly,because it forces political parties to appeal to a larger swathe of groups and forces them away from special interest policies. The argument is that politicians are forced to devote greater effort to implementing programmes in situations where there is more uncertainty about the electoral outcome. Such competition also,it is held,creates new opportunities for vulnerable sections to determine who wins in the elections. For instance,political parties like the BSP and Samajwadi Party (which won the recent UP assembly elections) have a dedicated votebase among low caste and marginalised groups in India.

A set of surveys on the functioning of MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh,Tamil Nadu,Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan conducted by us reveals that political competition indeed induces greater effort by the winning candidate to target public goods such as MGNREGA towards the poor,with positive benefits spilling over to others. More acutely and moderately poor have worked in worksites in those villages where there is competition for the post of sarpanch,as compared to villages where such competition did not occur.

We devised a political competition index that accounts for votes received by the winner,the runner-up and the number of contestants in the Panchayat elections,after collecting this information for each village in a representative sample of households.The findings on the effect of political competition show several interesting nuances. First,for general participation in the workfare scheme,low levels of competition enhance participation in the two southern states,while extremely high levels of competition curtail it. Ethnographic perceptions in Tamil Nadu support these results because a majority of villagers from different socio-economic and political backgrounds agreed that extreme competition created barriers to access and participation in MGNREGA.

In Tamil Nadu,for instance,about 45 per cent of government officials thought that political competition was not beneficial. Among elected leaders,over 88 per cent expressed the view that political competition did not benefit the poor. While a majority of village-level leaders and non-elites expressed similar views to those of the elected leaders,a fifth in these two categories also said that competition did not matter. Similarly,a majority of SC/ST and OBC respondents believed that competition was harmful to proper implementation of such schemes. These results are reflected in the fact that there is more general participation in NREGA in Tamil Nadu villages with low rather than high competition.

In MP and Rajasthan,however,participation in MGNREGA is low at relatively low levels of competition but increases at higher levels. This may imply that in the two southern states,more people are likely to participate in the scheme in villages with relatively low political competition,while in the two northern states,more will participate in highly competitive villages.

Second,the impact of increasing political competition is less beneficial to the poor in some states and more beneficial in other states. As the level of political competition increases in the villages of Tamil Nadu,AP and Rajasthan,more poor people are likely to participate in the scheme. By contrast,in MP,a poor person’s chances of participating in MGNREGA diminish as political competition increases over a range or up to a threshold.

Third,extremely high levels of competition are detrimental to poor people’s participation in the scheme in the two southern states and Rajasthan,while in MP,such high political competition enhances their entry.

Fourth,among the poor,the impact of competition varies for the acutely poor and moderately poor. The impact of political competition differed within the same state,that is,the moderately poor benefitted more than the acutely poor in AP,implying that extant studies on the effect of competition on empowering the poor ought to be more nuanced. The acutely poor in AP did not benefit from high political competition,but did so in Rajasthan,MP and Tamil Nadu.

These findings validate several theories but also cast doubt on others. For instance,economist Timothy Besley’s view is validated in AP where moderate levels of political competition are most beneficial to participation by the poor but is contradicted by MP,where high levels produce the best results for the poor.

In sum,we need to take politics and politicisation more seriously in the design of accountability mechanisms. In village after village,the heads of the poorest households said that they would accept whatever was given to them,and that they could not question the powerful people. The powerlessness of these families cannot be tackled through formal institutional mechanisms alone. Social and political mobilisation by civil society groups and political parties are important catalysts to create opportunities for changing the power imbalances. Only then can schemes such as MGNREGA address the imbalances of power and the potential for conflict in villages in its project design and processes.

Shylashri Shankar is senior fellow,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi. Raghav Gaiha is a former professor,Faculty of Management Studies,Delhi University

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