The defining slogan of the campaign that brought about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was work on demand — “har haath ko kaam mile, kaam ka pura daam mile (everyone gets work and is paid fairly for it)”. The failure to convert this dream into a deliverable promise has led to a sense of despondency among potential beneficiaries and ardent supporters. MGNREGA was introduced as a lifeline to the rural poor by guaranteeing a hundred days of work where no other employment opportunities exist. It was the first rights-based development legislation in India. Eight years after it was introduced, we are faced with declining employment figures, even as demand for work remains unmet. What makes this more puzzling is that poverty-affected states are reporting comparatively lower employment provision and expenditure.
Evidence produced through independent studies, the experiences of grassroots organisations and interactions with frontline functionaries indicate that the fall in demand for work is a result of low levels of awareness among workers, as well as a lack of administrative capacity to capture the actual demand of rural workers. The task at hand, therefore, was to challenge the perception that the MGNREGA had lost relevance. The demand for work is key to unlocking the MGNREGA work cycle. This called for a focused effort that strengthens processes and capacity within and outside the implementation structure to go back to basics and invoke the right to demand work.
To do this, Kaam Maango Abhiyan, a collaborative effort was recently implemented by the ministry of rural development. In collaboration with state governments, district administrations and civil society organisations, it was conducted in six districts, which were selected keeping in mind the geographical variation, poverty indices and presence of strong civil society organisations with experience of mobilising workers to access entitlements under MGNREGA.
The abhiyan divided responsibilities. Civil society organisations that committed their participation were responsible for creating awareness of MGNREGA and its entitlements, mobilising people to demand work and facilitating the filling of work applications. The administration was responsible for receiving work applications, entering details into the electronic platform which can then be tracked by the public, providing work as demanded and paying wages within the 15-day timeline. This collaboration was reflected in the district-level trainings jointly organised by civil society organisations and the district administration.
Padyatras were at the heart of Kaam Maango Abhiyan. Teams of five to 10 people moved from one panchayat to another over five days, with a focus on habitations relatively more backward and excluded. Teams carried banners, posters and puppets, singing songs as they went along. They were asked to camp in each habitation and assist in filling work applications.
Most workers that the teams met said that “jitne din kaam milega utne din kaam karenge (we’re willing to work for as many days as we can)”. When asked why they hadn’t worked so far, they simply said “gaon mein kaam khulla hi nahi (there’s no work available in the village)” and now understood that “maangenge toh milega (if we ask for it we will get work)”. Preliminary results have been encouraging. Over four lakh work applications and 70,000 job-card registration applications have been received across 2,700 panchayats. A comparative analysis of demand for work in the districts between November 2013 and January 2014 (the abhiyan months), with the same period in the previous year, shows a dramatic increase of almost 400 per cent.
Registration of work applications is just one part of the story. Continued coordination with the administration was critical to ensure that work was provided in the stipulated time period (15 days) for the full duration the worker had demanded and paid the wage rate within time. Bimonthly rozgar diwas are also being mandatorily conducted in these districts. Fixing the date and venue of the rozgar diwas increases the predictability of access to MGNREGA functionaries and will help to institutionalise some of the efforts of the abhiyan.
KMA has also highlighted some key supply-side constraints and built-in disincentives in responding to demand as it is raised. For example, dated receipts are rarely given to the workers because of the concern that this could be used as proof by the worker to demand unemployment allowance if work is not provided in time. Certain technological interventions, such as e-muster rolls, have created confusion over access to entitlements at the frontline with workers being turned away if they arrive once the e-muster roll has already been printed.
More worrying, perhaps, are the recent budget cuts to the programme. When panchayat and block functionaries are asked why works have not begun in their area, one often hears the strain, “paisa nahin hain, toh kaam kaise kholengey (how will be begin work when there’s no money)?” The initial results of the abhiyan indicate the unmet demand and true potential of the MGNREGA. A definitive response to this at all levels of administration will be the true test of the demand-driven nature of the programme.
Anindita Adhikari, Inayat Anaita Sabhikhi and Rakshita Swamy are consultants with the Union ministry of rural development