|Artwork: Mahboob Ali|
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 (NREGA, subsequently renamed after Mahatma Gandhi, or MGNREGA) was a landmark in Indian legislation. Under the act, as of April 2008, for the first time in India’s history, all rural citizens have a legal right to work. In the operational guidelines for the act, the Indian government called this a paradigm shift from wage employment, stating that the legislation ‘provides a rights-based framework for wage employment’. Today, the law guarantees every rural household in India – in practice, defined as a nuclear family of two adults and all dependent children – 100 days of employment every year, on demand, at a set minimum wage (currently INR 100 at the national level, though varying from state to state). The MGNREGA differs from other poverty-alleviation measures in one significant respect: Whereas most welfare programmes cast the state in the role of benefactor, offering handouts to the poor, the MGNREGA is built around notions of citizenship and entitlement.
India’s landmark rural-employment legislation evolved out of a political response to a people’s movement and the articulated needs of rural workers. It put the people’s right to work in a legal framework, and placed economic and social empowerment of the poor and the marginalised at the centre of the state’s development agenda. The focus was clear: in addition to the three points mentioned previously, an inability to provide work would establish the right to an unemployment allowance. All aspects of the MGNREGA are covered by mandatory transparency and accountability provisions; even the initial planning is to be with the Gram Sabha and endorsed by the people, ensuring that participatory democracy is in place.
For the first time in India, a people’s demand went beyond specific groups to instead cover the whole country. Employment under this new scheme has been on a scale unprecedented anywhere in the world, and has proven a success not only in harnessing surplus labour but also in building assets, preventing distress migration and reducing endemic hunger. According to official figures, in the last financial year, employment under the scheme was extended to 52.5 million households, with more than 2.8 billion days of work being created. Among those who engaged in work under this scheme, 864.4 million (30.5 percent) days were accounted for by individuals from the Scheduled Castes, 587.4 million (20.7 percent) were from the Scheduled Tribes, and women accounted for a massive 1.4 billion (48.1 percent).
The past two years have seen severe drought in many parts of India, thus offering a potent test for the new legislation. As it turns out, access to employment (and, therefore, an income) largely prevented the rural poor from starvation, as income derived largely from the MGNREGA helped to ensure a minimal level of food security. In addition, the legislation has also drawn attention to the weaknesses of the delivery mechanism as well as administrative and technical shortcomings. This has also helped to bring home the need for technology to address the real needs of workers – for instance, for the first time, hand-held digging implements have attracted the attention of industrial designers.
Still, there has been criticism, including with respect to corruption and leakages. In addition, the achievements of the MGNREGA have been uneven: in many states, even the scheme’s job cards, on the basis of which families can demand employment, are yet to be properly issued. Of course, not all the criticism has been warranted. One of the arguments vigorously used against the MGNREGA is that it has made farming difficult, given the higher wages required for farm labour. But in reality, this is perhaps one of the strongest endorsements that the MGNREGA could receive. It is a law designed to support the poorest, and such criticism only indicates that the new regime has increased the bargaining power of rural labour. This is not to say, however, that the problems that have cropped up in implementation can be overlooked.
The MGNREGA provides all rural citizens – ie, those living in an area where a Panchayat is the basic unit of governance – with ten basic entitlements. An examination of each will offer a picture of the skewed nature of the legislation’s overall achievements. First, then, is the most central right: that to 100 days of employment per year for every rural family. In 2009-10, the MGNREGA provided work to 52.6 million households but managed to give the full 100 days of work to only a little over seven million of these – some 13.4 percent. This is the result of both a failure to communicate the demand-driven nature of the entitlement, as well as a failure of the system to adequately respond to the demands that were made.
An important corollary to the first point is the right to a job card, to which each rural family is entitled, thus enabling each cardholder to demand employment. While by and large the job cards have been issued, problems typically arise in the failure of the administrative machinery to fill in the details of work on the job cards. This is vital, as an inadequately or wrongly entered card is not of much help. However, the transparency provisions contained in the legislation itself provide the remedy: the ‘social audit’ process would enable the administration to assess the actual achievements of the programme in public meetings.
There is also an important timeframe tagged on to this process. People now have the official right to demand – and receive – work within 15 days, or else they can apply for unemployment allowances. Yet for the most part, people remain unaware that such provisions – and MGNREGA-related employment generally – are driven by demand. As such, significant unemployment-related funds are going unused. For this, individuals have to take a stamped receipt (proof of their entitlement to unemployment allowances) when they apply for work in the first place – but the people do not seem to know that they have to demand the compensation. Lack of knowledge is not the only problem here, though, as in the rare instances that people do demand a stamped receipt, it is not unusual for them to be denied by local officials.
There are also limitations on how far away the offered employment can be, with the legal distance having been set at five kilometres from home. In this instance, MGNREGA has been largely successful. Further, in the situation that people have to travel more than five kilometres from home to the worksite, they are entitled to receive a travel allowance. In instances in which this has not been followed, it seems to be largely due to the fact that the work project itself was not located within the territory of the local Gram Sabha or the village unit, as stipulated in the next entitlement.
The fifth right, then, is that to select work within one’s own Gram Sabha. The way MGNREGA has been structured, the onus for this is placed on the Panchayati Raj institutions, the local village councils in charge of governance. The Gram Sabha meets only when under pressure, and it generally suits the Panchayat to keep the process dormant, since that prevents scrutiny of Panchayat functioning by the village assembly. This legislation requires the Gram Sabha to formulate the work plans, however, which could currently constitute the largest single area of non-performance.
At the moment, it appears that most workers do not yet realise their potential to change the planning process and, in fact, even to impact upon the larger decentralisation process by forcing the Panchayat to hold public meetings. The feudal social structure that continues to dominate much of rural India continues to make it highly disadvantageous for such participatory governance to be successful. Those who seek employment of this kind are largely from the lower economic and social strata, while those who are in charge in the Panchayat Raj institutions usually belong to the powerful rural ruling class. Although these institutions do make reservations for people from all sections of society, these positions are vulnerable to heavy manipulation.
Timely payment is critical for most of those engaging in rural employment schemes, and as such workers are guaranteed payment within 15 days or else compensation. Workers are ‘to be paid on a weekly basis, and in any case within a fortnight of the date on which work was done’. Yet in spite of many efforts at streamlining, by paying through post offices and banks (which also helps avoid pilferage), wages are not being paid on a timely basis, a delay that seems to be the result of both corrupt intent and incompetence. Tamil Nadu has been able to meet payment deadlines (in most cases), and that too because it is the only state to pay wages in cash. There are efforts being made to streamline Internet facilities and make the whole process transaction-based, with pay slips generated through computerised records of work. For now, though, the money received from the central government lies in banks and other accounts at the district and state levels, accruing interest. Banks that are eager to get these big deposits will have to develop systems to deliver the money to the beneficiaries in a timely manner – and, if not, to pay interest on delayed payments.
In addition to timely payments, workers have the right to employment at a set minimum wage, though many are questioning at what level exactly this should be set. The unorganised and casual worker has a right to get a minimum wage for a specified number of hours of work under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. Increasingly, prices and cost of living are shooting up, and the cost of living in some states is particularly high, but New Delhi officials seem to have developed cold feet, freezing the wage at INR 100 per day, countrywide. This is still open to state governments to make a final decision, though states that have increased the wage are asked to pay the remainder out of their own coffers.
There is a related issue with regard to how the quantum of work is measured in the first place, with the wage being tied to the amount of work done. Work done should be measured and the wage rate fixed accordingly for each worker. But there is an old argument about wages and work that has carried into the MGNREGA – the conflict between daily wages and wage rates. The worker is given work individually, but then the work is measured collectively. The result has been a disincentive for labourers to work to their full capacity, fearful that the benefits of their hard work might go to others. Further, the worksite conditions, their details and processes, have come under minute examination to enable the worker to receive the minimum wage. The amount to be paid is covered under the Basic Schedule of Rates (BSR), in which there are different rates for different types of work, depending on soil conditions and other specifications. To determine these factors, proper measurements are required – but currently, this is not being done satisfactorily.
Eighth is the right to worksite facilities, including water, shade, medical kits and crèches. As noted earlier, many – and sometimes, most – of the workers on a worksite are women. In particular, the MGNREGA sought to address the needs of women with babies, by guaranteeing some worksite facilities: if there are more than five children at a worksite, the law requires that one person be assigned to look after children. But despite good intentions, crèches and shade are today largely non-existent, although water is often provided and medical kits of a sort are typically available. Again, lack of awareness about entitlement remains a central problem in changing this situation.
Get complete wages
The last two entitlements enshrined in the MGNREGA deals with issues related to the right to information (RTI). The first of these is the right to transparency and proactive disclosure of all records. In its initial stages, in Rajasthan in the 1990s, the demand for right to information was linked to work and wages; eventually, MGNREGA was passed by Parliament mere months after the RTI bill, and therefore mandates transparency and accountability in all aspects of implementation. The widespread corruption in pilfering from legitimate wages is well acknowledged, and this insistence on transparency and access to records, including labour attendance, has helped to prevent pilferage. Opaque material purchases allow nepotism and corruption to flourish, with fake procurements being made and the money ending up in the pockets of local ruling groups and the petty bureaucracy. The introduction of purchase through registered dealers and a system of tenders is meeting with stiff resistance from these elements.
Finally, there now exists a right to audit works and expenditure, through social audits, in which the local communities physically verify all work against official records. These audits, mandated to be done by the Gram Sabhas, are intended not only to identify and plug pilferage and corruption, but also to build awareness and confidence in beneficiaries who, over time, learn to become increasingly vigilant and assertive. Institutionalised social audits are vital if a programme of the dimensions of the MGNREGA is to succeed. The mandatory provisions for transparency in the MGNREGA have been translated in Rajasthan into wall paintings, or a ‘web wall’, where the information is presented in the public domain, detailing names of all workers, their work and wages received, and other details of work. However, places where such proactive disclosure can be found are few.
In its half-decade as the law of the land, the MGNREGA has simultaneously empowered the poor as well as strengthened participatory democracy. It is the only programme for the poor in which fundamental questions regarding governance are raised through questioning of pilferage. It enables people to participate and learn about democracy, by understanding the real use of democratic institutions they know and understand. In many cases, the local Panchayat has begun to be empowered in a real sense. The workers’ slogans themselves encapsulate the spirit of the people who struggled for the MGNREGA, and continue to fight for their survival – thereby contributing to the reconstruction of a new polity for rural India:
Har haath ko kaam do (Give every pair of idle hands work)
Kaam ka poora daam do (Full wages for work done)
Poora kaam (Do complete work)
Poora daam (Get complete wages)
While the challenges are in all the ten basic entitlements, the MGNREGA scheme represents a massive departure in bringing minimum protection to the masses in the second most-populous country in the world.
~ Aruna Roy is a social activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS), working in rural Rajasthan, and a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council.
~ Nachiket Udupa is a social activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), working in rural Rajasthan.