Evidence of better implementation of the MGNREGA sends out a reassuring signal at a time when back-to-back droughts in 2014 and 2015 have resulted in an agrarian crisis that has seen rural incomes fall sharply across the country. In the absence of a well-functioning MGNREGA programme — that guarantees 100 days of unskilled labour to one adult in every rural household — there has been little support for those in the rural population who need it most. A noteworthy aspect of the current revival is that it is happening, by all accounts, due to better monitoring by the Centre and timely release of funds. The MGNREGA was the UPA’s flagship programme and BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had expressed sharp scepticism about the scheme and its approach. In fact, in February 2015, Modi had mocked the Congress, stating on the floor of the Lok Sabha that he would keep the rural employment scheme alive as a monument to the Congress’s economic policy failures. Its apparent revival now shows that the MGNREGA is perhaps no longer a victim of political differences. This change could not have come at a more opportune time.
To a great extent, the political apathy the Modi government had shown towards the MGNREGA could be seen in the sharp fall in the person-days of employment generated in the first year of NDA rule. From 73.42 crore person-days in the April-June quarter of 2014, wherein UPA ruled until May-end, employment fell to just 33.27 crore in the September quarter and further to 23.67 crore in the December quarter before marginally improving to 36 crore in the March quarter. The data for the current financial year shows that the employment generated is substantially better than in the last financial. This confirms what several civil society and academic observers have long reiterated: While the MGNREGA is a demand-driven programme on paper, in reality, it requires political ownership by governments, both at the Centre and in the states, to succeed.
Several challenges still lie ahead if the MGNREGA has to serve the purpose it was designed to fulfil: To provide a short-term employment alternative to rural households during the lean agricultural season and avoid not just distress migration but also the debilitating impacts on educational and nutritional outcomes that accompany it. Data suggests that the states worst affected by drought are still not benefiting adequately from the MGNREGA. Clearly, the Centre and concerned states have a long way to go in not only creating awareness but also instituting effective grievance redressal mechanisms.