Benefits of NREGA Remain Elusive Even as Drought Peaks

The administration has failed to effectively implement the  National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in drought-affected villages in the Bundelkhand region.

A village girl carries empty containers to collect drinking water near Chilla village in the Bundelkhand region in 2008. Credit: Reuters/Pawan Kumar.

A village girl carries empty containers to collect drinking water near Chilla village in the Bundelkhand region in 2008. Credit: Reuters/Pawan Kumar.

Mahoba, Bundelkhand: Normally one would expect the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to be most effectively implemented in the worst drought-affected areas, but when this writer visited three such villages in the Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh on May 6, he found that not even a single person was employed to do NREGA work in all three villages.

Although people in these villages had earlier done some work under NREGA, they do not have any work now, when they need it desperately. The wages for the work done earlier were paid after a very long time had passed. As one of the villagers Hari Singh says, “When people are very badly affected by hunger, work for which wage payment is delayed for a long time is not effective in providing badly-needed relief to people.”

This brings us to the larger issue of whether NREGA by itself can be adequate in providing livelihood support. Clearly, in addition to better implementation of NREGA, special drought relief work which can provide wages quickly – at the most within a week – is also needed.

In Bihar village of Jaitpur block, employment was provided for about three weeks in January and for about two weeks in March. The payment for this work, the villagers told the writer on May 6, is about to reach them as all formalities have been completed. Even assuming that they receive the payment within a day or two after this conversation, it is clear that a delay of two to four months is very unfortunate in present times, when people are in great distress.

In this village of 500 households, about 100 people had been employed in January for about three weeks, while 250 people were able to work in March for about a fortnight. This gives an indication of the limited impact that NREGA has made by way of reducing drought-related distress this year. In Karhara Dang village also, people complain that the last time they got work under the NREGA scheme was in February, despite their great need for work.

In the village of Mahuvabandh, which has a large population of about 8,000, one would expect NREGA to have significant presence. However, even here, the presence of the scheme has been extremely limited. This has resulted in very large-scale migration of village workers who are unable to repose their trust in NREGA. Despite the increasing uncertainty of migration, and surplus labour in several cities leading to fewer opportunities for employment and lower wages, preparations for more migration are being made.

This means that the core component of the employment guarantee associated with NREGA has been considerably diluted and that NREGA has, for all practical purposes, been functioning here like any other rural employment programme in which the administration provides work as and when it chooses to and not as per the real needs and demands of people.

People also complain about the number of visits they have to make to town to check whether their wage payments have been received. There is a lot of unnecessary waste of time, effort and money in all this, and there is a lot of avoidable anxiety and tension that people have to bear. Worst of all, people do not have the money to buy food even when they have already worked to earn the money for it.

In these villages there is no lack of work which can be taken up to make productive use of NREGA funds. Moreover, people are eager to work. This is the time to step up NREGA work and ensure that wages are paid promptly. Efforts should also be made to enable tolerable work conditions and timings, as people are already very physically weak and many more days of scorching summer heat lie ahead. 

Apart from this, additional drought relief work needs to be started, so that payment can promptly be made to people, more flexible work conditions can be arranged, and perhaps food can also be arranged in lieu of payment.

This is the second of a series of reports on the drought in Bundelkhand’s Mahoba district. Read the first here