Sangita Jha/ New Delhi
The Centre has reworked the flagship programme to make it more effective. But whether the scheme in its new avatar would serve the purpose is yet to be seen
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had confided to Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, that thanks to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) there had been spurts in village heads roaming around in Scorpio in his state. Just before the Bihar Assembly elections, the Delhi residence of RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav was surprised to find a huge number of village sarpanch and mukhiya at his door-step. Yadav found much to his surprise that five years of MNREGA had produced wealthy tribes of village head-men, whose ambitions only soared.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently released Mahatma Gandhi NREGA Sameeksha, after the flagship in over five years since inception cost the Centre a whopping Rs 1.17 lakh crore. The release of the report card also came at a time when the job demands within MNREGA have seen more than 20 per cent decline in the last financial year. At the same time a number of states are struggling to spend their allocated funds under the flagship scheme. In the last five years, the report card claims to have generated over 1200 crore work mandays.
Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh in his foreword of the report mentioned that five crore families on an average have got employment each year since 2008 under MNREGA. "About 19 per cent of works taken under MNREGA have been for rural connectivity, while another 25 per cent had been for water conservation and rain water harvesting. Also, 14 per cent of works had been related to irrigation and 13 per cent dealing with flood control and drought management," Ramesh stressed to highlight the achievements of the flagship scheme.
Further, the report claimed that based on a study conducted in six states it was found that 82 per cent widows depended on MNREGA for the source of their income, while 69 per cent women in the sample study stated that the flagship scheme saved them from starvation. Also, the report rejected the contention that the MNREGA has been responsible for shortage of farm labour by claiming that 70 per cent of the job demands under the flagship scheme in 2010-11 came during lean farming season.
The Sameeksha also claimed to have slowed down the rural-urban migration. It stated that the MNREGA has slowed down migration of the poor and to drive home the point has mentioned a study conducted in the western Odisha where migration came down by 45 per cent in 2009-10.
However, on the negatives, the Sameeksha has noted that as per the NSO sample over 19 per cent who sought jobs under the MNREGA could not get employment. The report card takes pain to explain that the state governments could not help the Gram Panchayats to build enough capacity to give jobs to all those who demanded. As per the MNREGA Act, all those who seek jobs must be given works or they should be given financial compensation as per the rules.
Prime Minister was, however, all praise for the rural job scheme, as he described it a "silver bullet" for rural revival. He also brushed aside farmers' concern about MNREGA's role in increasing agricultural wages. Dr Singh was of the view that rising manual labour opportunities the scheme provides are the only way to help the landless poor in rural India.
While urging Panchayati Raj institutions (PRIs) to gear up for its effective implementation. Prime Minister said, "PRIs have to gear up to play the central role assigned to them and we have to provide resources to equip panchayats to perform these functions effectively. If these bodies can rise to the challenge, MNREGA can very well become a silver bullet for India's rural renewal." He further stressed MNREGA's potential of becoming the spearhead of rural transformation.
However, critics state that MNREGA was meant to work towards making itself redundant but on the contrary it's self-perpetuating. They base their arguments on the surprise exprssed by Prime Minister himself that concurrent evaluation of MNREGA was not being done. The department of industrial policy and promotion in a study has found that MNREGA's assurance of unskilled employment is slowing the growth of skilled and semi-skilled labour.
The critics have sought from the government to face up to the challenge of responding to demands of continuing economic growth for millions of unskilled and casual workers to acquire new skills and enter the manufacturing sector.
However, sameeksha, which is based on numerous studies carried out in a number of states, gives many examples to show that MNREGA is at least a half-filled glass and not just full empty.
The Sameeksha in fact claims that MNREGA has revived the rural economy with surplus money at the hands of the poor, which is giving demands for goods for consumption. In an ambitious statement, the Sameeksha even claims that "MNREGA can insulate Indian economy from the slowdown in the world economy by creating enough demands for goods".
"MNREGA is helping private investments in the rural economy, while helping people to engage in permanent livelihoods works. With revival of lands, marginal farmers are getting back to their own lands to work, which in turn would generate more demands for rural jobs," the Sameeksha noted.
It further quotes studies conducted in Karnatka to drive home the point that the growing productivity is helping people in the rural areas in improving their buying capacity. Due to MNREGA men and women can spend 48 per cent and 66 per cent of the income in buying products of the rural economy itself, noted theSameeksha.
After the flagship scheme allowed the villages to take up works on the private land, a study quoted by the Sameeksha in Madhya Pradesh stated that 52 per cent people found qualitative improvement in the productivity of their land. This study also revealed that there were 15 per cent growth in farm productivity due to works under MNREGA undertaken on them. "This helped in the food security of the people as well. The food availability of the participating families under the scheme improved from six months to nine months," it stated. The study further revealed that 50 per cent of the people who claimed jobs under the MNREGA later started working on their own lands and did not claim benefit under any other scheme. So, the sameeksha claims, that MNREGA workers are becoming self-reliant.
The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have been the largest beneficiaries of the MNREGA. The Sameeksha also stresses this point by stating that the participations of the SCs and STc on the national average have been about 40 to 50 per cent. A survey spanning six states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and UP revealed that among the MNREGA beneficiaries 81 per cent had kutcha houses, 61 per cent were illiterate, 72 per cent had no access to electricity. Further, in another study spanning five districts in UP threw light on the fact that 85 per cent of the MNREGA beneficiaries were living below the poverty line, which included 50 per cent people belonging to scheduled castes and another 45 per cent to other backward castes. While the Centre has unveiled MNREGA 2.0 to make the flagship scheme more meaningful in the coming years, it's to be seen whether the scheme remains a case of half-filled glass or it really serves the purpose originally intended for.