By Amit Rahul
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was launched to address the issues of extreme poverty and unemployment in rural areas as well as to provide opportunity and resources to build and improve rural infrastructure. The scheme successfully provided livelihood opportunities to a great number of poor rural households and check short-term distress migration to some extent besides improving the nutritional status and enhancing the dignity and social position of women in the family. However, over a period of time there has been a marked decline in the delivery and implementation of the scheme, though the trend varies from state to state. The euphoria and excitement generated by the scheme in its initial stage has given way to disillusionment and disappointment. The once celebrated revolutionary job guarantee scheme seems to be floundering mainly due to issues in its implementation, planning, poor awareness & capacity building training, introduction of complex software, excessive monitoring, official’s fatigue as well as corruption.
It appears that the scheme, which was launched to empower the vulnerable & the voiceless, weed out poverty in rural hinterlands, check distress migration and create rural infrastructures by providing 100 days of unskilled manual labour in a year to each of the needy households seeking work, has lost its direction and has largely failed to come up to its expectations and objectives. Despite its shortcomings, the data for the financial year 2014-15 shows that around 4 crore households in the country worked under MGNREGA. Half of the workforce comprised of women and the proportion of scheduled caste workers was around 22 percent and scheduled tribe around 18 percent. This suggests that the scheme has been able to influence the lives of rural poor especially the marginalized and vulnerable social categories and groups.
The present discussion and argument is primarily based on my experience of studying, analyzing and evaluating the implementation of various rural development schemes including MGNREGA across various states and districts in the capacity of the Institutional National Level Monitor of the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), Government of India as well as a professional sociologist involved in social research. During the visits, I got an opportunity to interact with the department officials, PRI and civil society functionaries, scheme beneficiaries and the general villagers at the GP, block and district levels.
There could be many reasons for the poor success rate of MGNREGA in the majority of the states in the country. The first and the foremost reason is the favoritism shown by the PRI functionaries while identifying the eligible households to assign work under MGNREGA. Year after year, a select group of job card holders used to get the opportunity to work under the scheme while the others, despite needing the work more, continued to be deprived of this opportunity. This led to a general feeling of resentment and of being left out of the benefits of the scheme among the majority of the job card holders and they began to lose interest in the scheme. Low awareness about work on demand and grievance redressal mechanism, poor system of block level monitoring and apathy of the officials to address the concerns of the job card holders further alienated the villagers leading to their loss of confidence in the scheme and the implementing agencies.
The delay in the release of money by the centre due to various reasons such as the failure to submit the utilization certificates (UCs) in time or spend 60 percent of the allotted money by the state in the last financial year penalizes the workers and not the district and state, which are actually responsible for the failure. Thus, this provision needs to be relooked into and revised, as it appears to be going against the job card holders for whom MGNREGA is crucial for survival. If we compare the available data of the last four years (2010-11 to 2013-14) on the implementation report of MGNREGA in the poor and major source states of migrants (particularly the laboring poor), we find that in these years the average person days of employment generated per household comes to 37 days in Bihar, 42 in Madhya Pradesh, 38 in Jharkhand, 37 in Odisha, 36 in Uttar Pradesh and 30 in West Bengal. Against this, richer states like Andhra Pradesh (51 days), Tamil Nadu (51 days) and Maharashtra (46 days) were able to provide more employment. The poor creation of work under MGNREGA in Bihar, MP, Odisha, UP etc. raises a question mark on the implementation of the scheme in these states despite considerable out migration of poor and vulnerable from these states to destinations such as Delhi, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat etc in search of work opportunities.
Another important reason is the lack of capacity-building and training of the officials and staff involved in the implementation of the scheme particularly on matters relating to IT and software handling. The officials and functionaries mainly at the block and GP level have poor knowledge of computer. Thus additional budgeting is required specially for imparting such training to the officials and PRI functionaries. New software and monitoring tools have created new problems for the officials, as they spend most of their time in learning and sorting out the computer and software-related issues on a day-to-day basis. This hampers physical supervision and monitoring process such as checking the renewal and update of job cards, the practice of giving acknowledgement receipts to the job seekers, using proper communication tools for awareness generation and information dissemination, etc. Therefore, it is important to take the officials into confidence and impart them the required training before introducing any new IT software.
Thirdly, very few or no work has been taken up under MGNREGA at some revenue villages or hamlets falling under a GP, while the majority of the work has gone to the village or hamlet, which houses the dwelling of the village Pradhan. If the elected new Pradhan happens to be from a different hamlet then he takes it upon himself to personally undo the injustice meted to his hamlet by the previous Pradhan from the neighbouring hamlet. This practice divides the village into various conflicting interest groups and the overall development of the GP suffers due to extreme polarization resulting from the politicization of the village. Those tasked with the responsibility of monitoring should participate in some of the meetings of the Gram Sabha and ensure that there is no biasness in the allocation of work to any village or hamlet under the GP and that there is a development plan for the whole GP. The works should also be distributed in all the habitations, so that the inhabitants of any one habitation do not find themselves to be excluded.
Also, the long delay (for example, as reported in the districts of UP such as Ballia and Mau during the NLM visit) in the wage payment of the MGNREGA functionaries such as Assistant Programme Officer, Secretary, Rozgar Sevak, etc. has affected the implementation and monitoring of the scheme at the village level. The shortage of staff is another issue, which should be seen in relation to the delay in wage payment. Due to additional burden and delayed wage, there is general disinterest among the lower level staff. There is also likelihood of the entry of the element of corruption in the implementation of the scheme. Furthermore, it leads to poor monitoring of various activities of the scheme resulting in shoddy work and poor infrastructure creation. This creates an impression among the villagers that all the money has gone down the drain and their distrust in the scheme further increases. The 60:40 cap on wage material ratio for all kinds of work is also responsible for poor quality of construction. Some works should be identified from the shelf of work that may require more material cost but will prove to be very useful for the development of the village. For such works, the 60:40 wage material ratio should be relaxed, as the emphasis should be on creation of durable assets besides providing the job guarantee to the job seekers as per the mandate of the scheme.
There is no denying the fact that the scheme has not only helped in providing supplementary household income (for some households the main source of income) to the households demanding work under the ACT but has also contributed in checking distress migration of entire households, as several households during the visit have reported that some members though still move out seeking work opportunities, other members continue to stay back and work under MGNREGA or take up other available works in the village itself. MGNREGA can also be indirectly credited for the checking school drop-out and increasing the retention of children in school as many mothers of school going children have reported during the NLM visit to stay behind for the sake of their children’s education rather than migrate with their spouse in search of better wage and longer employment. The extent of impact of the scheme on schooling though needs further research in order to draw any valid conclusion on this aspect.
It is true that MGNREGA has contributed in rural job creation but with each passing year, a feeling of ‘been there done that’ has cropped among the officials, PRI functionaries and the job seekers, as there has been no significant change in the programme in its decade long life since inception. There is a need for repackaging and restructuring of the programme in order to make the programme more effective. Until alternate employment opportunities are not created, the scheme is needed as a ‘safety valve’ for the rural poor. However, necessary changes should be made in the scheme to facilitate the creation of durable community assets besides employment generation.
Dr Amit Rahul is a professional sociologist & development professional engaged with Centre for Media Studies (CMS), New Delhi