The 'making' of rural India

Just recall the scene in parliament when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed in 2005.

In Lok Sabha, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee put forth the motion – “Those in favour, say aye” – a unanimous chorus rose from the packed Lok Sabha. “Those against, say no,” – there was dead silence. “I think the ayes have it!” he said – and a seminal, landmark legislation became a reality.

As then rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh concluded his rousing speech with “Rozgar Guarantee Zindabad!,” it brought India’s parliament and the rural people together  in agreement, applause, and celebration. The Act was later named after Mahatma Gandhi and came to be known as MGNREGA.

It was a historic moment for the country’s people and democracy.  It was a law driven by people’s demand. It mandated and guaranteed an open budget to meet its obligations. It addressed rural India’s predicament of distress migration. It was self targeting, offering wage employment at minimum wages to all those who sought work. The struggle for the law was dotted with acrimonious debate.

Alarmist pink papers predicted the collapse of India’s economy, drained by dole seekers and corrupt middlemen. Widespread mobilisation pulled all political parties together in support of this peoples movement for the NREGA.

It was the largest works programme in the world, with multiple objectives including combating poverty. In 10 years, the law has charted a path of empowerment and creativity for workers in rural India.

A government press release on February 2, 2016 stated: “The achievements of a decade are a cause of national pride and celebration. Since the start of the programme, the expenditure on the programme has amounted to Rs 3,13,844.55 crore and out of this 71 per cent has been spent on wage payments to workers. Of the workers, the percentage of scheduled caste workers has consistently been about 20 per cent and scheduled tribe workers has been about 17 per cent.

“A total of 1,980.01 crore persondays have been generated, out of which the percentage worked by women has steadily increased much above the statutory minimum of 33 per cent (around 57 per cent this year). Sustainable assets have been created linked to conservation of natural resources and overall development of gram panchayats.”

Independent researchers in two “Sameeksha” reports brought out by the rural development ministry (a summary of all the independent studies), say most of them show a positive impact. There have undoubtedly been problems in implementation – but most of them relate to administrative resistance and incompetence.

In the first phase (2006-2010), the law was introduced and its mechanics understood. Implementation was uneven; some states did better than others.  Even in areas of poor implementation, the law gave workers bargaining power to fight an exploitative wage structure and demand dignified wages. The complaints by employers of not getting workers on their terms are a testimony to the programme’s success.

From 2009 to 2014, the law was unfortunately, deliberately converted into a supply-driven programme, with a fund squeeze imposed by the finance ministry. Payments began to be delayed. Demand for work was neither captured, nor met. The bureaucracy had an excuse to not implement, and states ruled by different parties were left pleading for funds.

The mounting liabilities at the end of each year made it clear that the spirit of MGNREGA could easily be broken by simply turning off the supply of funds. With the advent of the Narendra Modi government, the programme faced its worst crisis.

Funds were reduced to a trickle – in fact, for the first time there were mid-term budget cuts in NREGA allocations. In addition, the political leadership was critical and spoke disparagingly about the programme and its potential. Modi’s scornful statement in parliament that he would preserve the programme as a “monument to failure,” marked
an all-time low, from which it seemed like it would be difficult for MGNREGA to recover.

Sustainable intervention

Mounting rural distress, created widespread protests. The message was clear and the perhaps wiser counsel in the government prevailed. As the MGNREGA has begun to revive, its achievements ‘over 10 years’ are officially recognised: as a cause for ‘national pride and celebration’! Perhaps, we can finally come to accept the MGNREGA as an important sustainable intervention to address ill-effects of drought, gross unemployment, and rural distress. It should now be a part of our political ‘national’ consensus.

There are basic problems that still need to be addressed. People will only get work and timely wage payments when legally mandated financial allocations are made. Today, more than 15 states have a fund crunch with negative balances.

While corruption has reduced, inefficiencies are widespread. Even with the funds that are released, in many cases, implementing agencies have failed to carry out their mandate – to ensure work efficiency, quality of assets, transparency in implementation, peoples’ planning, and effective social audit.

Committed administrators have demonstrated how much of an opportunity the programme offers for empowerment, development and rural infrastructure. However, despite a legal framework, it has been almost impossible to fix the accountability of implementing agencies. In one sense, that is the potential and the challenge, of the rights-based framework. 

The MGNREGA, along with the RTI, has been a pioneering example of the rights-based framework. The Modi government came to power questioning that framework. It is a paradigm that rests on the premise that the state has certain basic constitutional responsibilities to its citizens. Empowering citizens effectively can help them ensure that the programme benefits reach the right people in an effective way.

Policy makers in this government have finally accepted that the MGNREGA has fundamental value. But words are not enough. Political imagination and resolve needs to be bolstered by adequate funds to ensure that rural workers can use the MGNREGA to ‘Make in India’ – and make it well.

(The writers are social activists working in rural Rajasthan)

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