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Why India Needs MNREGA: Evidence From Gujarat

In Gujarat’s Chhota Udaipur, MNREGA has helped villagers increase their earnings, improved connectivity in the area and led to higher farm yields.

Representative image of MGNREGA workers. Credit: Reuters

Representative image of MNREGA workers. Credit: Reuters

In the ubiquitous environment of the withdrawal of the welfare state across the globe, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in India stands out as a critical and unique intervention. MNREGA is a social safety net that guarantees 100 days of employment to every rural household in a financial year. Given scarce resources and mis-targeting of anti-poverty programmes across the developing world, MNREGA is distinct as participants self-select themselves into the programme, work towards rural asset creation and supplement their income, especially in lean agricultural seasons.

Emerging evidence suggests that MNREGA has been instrumental in making a dent in rural poverty and has assisted in promoting women’s agency. It is also associated with reduced infant malnutrition and has created assets that are valuable for the community. Despite positive evidence from various parts of the country, the programme continues to receive criticism from different quarters of the current central government. At a parliament Budget session in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, remarked that his government would keep MNREGA alive as a testimony to the failure of their predecessors to tackle rampant poverty in India. In light of such criticism, it is worthwhile to cast a glance at what MNREGA has achieved in Gujarat, a state that has an average record in MNREGA implementation and where the BJP has been continuously in power since 1998, thus having ample time to design and implement alternative mechanisms to relieve agrarian distress and alleviate poverty.

Though Gujarat has been a poster child for growth and business in recent years, it has inherited long-standing traditions of social development. Maharaja Sayyaji Rao III, the erstwhile ruler of Baroda (now Vadodara) had initiated a spate of reforms in the first decade of the 20th century, which included provisions for universal access to primary education and legislations against discrimination based on gender and caste. Modi’s reign as chief minister of Gujarat (October 2001 to May 2014) had spurred the narrative of unprecedented prosperity and wellbeing. Despite Gujarat’s impressive growth rate for more than a decade, the performance on various socio-economic indices fell fairly short of spectacular. As a case in point, towards the end of his tenure in 2013, a predominantly tribal, underdeveloped district of Chhota Udaipur was carved out of Vadodara. Though the region is rich in minerals like dolomite, fluorite and granite, it has largely remained backward and is home to the Rathwa tribe, renowned for their Pithora paintings.

A Pithora painting at a circuit house in Chhota Udaipur. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

A Pithora painting at a circuit house in Chhota Udaipur. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

The climate in Chhota Udaipur is semi-arid and the region is drought prone with mostly single-cropped areas. Given the arduous terrain and poor connectivity, migration in search of livelihoods has been a constant part of life in the region. As per local accounts from Chhodvani village in Kawant block, prior to the implementation of MNREGA, around 85-90% of the working age population used to migrate to the Kathiawar region in Saurashtra in want of work. Given poor transportation facilities between different villages, limited farm produce was difficult to market and medical emergencies hard to tackle.

The road from Chhodavani to Moti Kadai. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

The road from Chhodavani to Moti Kadai. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

As per local accounts, after the implementation of MNREGA, there has been a drastic reduction in out-migration, especially during the lean season. This has afforded time for elder care and monitoring children’s education. Moreover, rural roads constructed under the programme have enhanced connectivity between villages and taluks. This has transformed the rural economy, as villages are now able to cultivate and market a variety of food crops, leading to higher incomes and diet diversity. In addition, these roads have cut down travel time, improving access to health centres and facilitating cultural integration in the region. The rural road constructed under MNREGA connects villages of Chhodavani and Moti Kadai, for instance, cutting the distance between them from nine km to three km. A similar rural road network also connects Chhodavani to Nasvadi Taluka, where residents are able to market their produce. Villagers are now able to pool resources and transport farm produce to mandis (markets) using tractors. These rural roads may seem wasteful and unproductive from the vantage point of an urban armchair commentator, but hold immense value for the local community.

Widening of a pond in the outskirts of Chhodavani village under MGNREGA. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

Widening of a pond in the outskirts of Chhodavani village under MNREGA. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

In addition to rural roads, various other works have been undertaken under MNREGA. These include building toilets, community wells and ponds, and land levelling on private farms. In the past year, villagers in the neighbouring region of Chhodavani village have deepened an existing pond that used to dry up earlier. Now, this pond not only provides water to three villages throughout the the year but has also facilitated improvements in the water table in the surrounding areas, with better regeneration of the aquifer. In addition, the silt from deepening the pond is used by MNREGA workers to increase the fertility of their plots, providing them an added incentive to participate in the project.

Private holdings of marginal farmers have also been levelled under MNREGA, leading to higher acreage and productivity. Besides more produce, this has allowed farmers like Singia Ulia from Chhodavani village an opportunity to cultivate pulses like green gram for the first time. Many other villagers have also started cultivating vegetables like cauliflower, tomatoes and bitter gourd in addition to traditional crops like cotton and maize, which has also led to increased diet diversity. Access to water and land levelling has led some farmers to double crop for the first time in the region. MNREGA has had a favourable impact on improvements in livelihood via enhanced farm productivity and acreage, access to water and better connectivity in the region.

Singia Ulia in his field. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

Singia Ulia in his field. Courtesy: Udayan Rathore

Looking at supply side factors, the local administration in the region comes across as highly motivated and adept at integrating MNREGA with various other developmental schemes. In our discussion, we found a proper mechanism via which a list of works – after being evaluated by the technical assistant – were maintained and approved. The muster rolls and registers seemed consistent and internal audits were regular. Most workers in the village reported that they were paid within 15 days of the work closing. In some cases where individuals continued to migrate during the lean season, their bank accounts were automatically frozen after six months of inactivity. This led to the bouncing of the transfer made by the administration, which has been working in close coordination with bank officials to expedite resolution of such matters. However, the challenges for Chhota Udaipur remain plentiful. In the past year, the administration was overburdened due to unfilled vacancies. Though there have been hires in recent months, most of these are contractual positions, with the contract running for 11 months. An official, during a discussion, confessed that such provisions lead to a high turnover rate. Moreover, constantly training new staff was seen as an expensive and time-consuming exercise.

As per the account of a high-level government official, Chhodavani village is an average performing district in MNREGA. This suggests the possible impact that the scheme has had in other villages of the district. MNREGA is like water, it flows everywhere. Its unique nature is captured in the strong convergence with policies such as Swacha Bharat Mission, Indira/Sardar Patel Awas Yojana, Watershed Management Programmes, National Rural Livelihood Mission and almost any programme centred on development in India.

Such anecdotal evidence (alongside rigorous research) from across India is suggestive of the impact that the MNREGA has had on the rural economy and the programme’s capacity to bring about a much-needed egalitarian push that juxtaposes increased well-being, cooperation and equally paramount aspects of dignity.

Udayan Rathore is a researcher and a former lecturer at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. Views are personal.