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Yes, The NREGA Is Riddled With Problems. But, Does India Have An Alternative?

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The Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is beset with numerous problems – non-availability of work, delay in wage payments and violation of people’s entitlements at the worksites, just to name a few. Reports of such malfunctioning have poured in from different parts of the country. Despite all its shortcomings, can India really do away with NREGA? Can the private informal economy really provide a substitute for a public works scheme?

This article reflects on the working of the MGNREGS in Southern Rajasthan. In Rajasthan, MGNREGS does not fully live up to its status of being a ‘star state‘ as claimed by the government, due to its implementation limitations. However, it still stands as a relevant scheme in the state. Experiences of a network of women solidarity group comprising over 11,000 Adivasi women (from southern Rajasthan) suggests, if properly implemented, the public works scheme would prove hugely beneficial for the most vulnerable, as their livelihood is majorly dependent on this.

Women Remain The Major Beneficiaries

MGNREGS work is now being looked at as ‘women’s work.’ It is often seen that men do not prefer to go for such work due to the low rate of wages being offered. Also, MGNREGS wage becomes a supplementary income and not sufficient for the whole income basket.

However, the scheme is hugely preferred by female-headed households whose husbands have migrated to the cities for work. Often, income earned from MGNREGS is the sole earning of the households headed by widows, single women and those who do not have male relatives. However, their incomes from the scheme remain marginal and their livelihoods precarious. The actions of women solidarity groups in the region have linked over 8,000 families to MGNREGS in the past two years, adding substantial support to these defenceless families.

Women working at the NREGA site. The practice of giving work by measurement at the NREGA work is often not followed. This causes unequal and low wages for the people working in one muster roll. (Photo provided by author)

Hurdles In Proper Implementation

As per Aajeevika Bureau‘s study findings, (2016-2017), an average of 39 person-days under NREGA was offered during the whole year as opposed to the prescribed 100 days. It has been reported that even after applying for work people’s name rarely finds a place in the muster roll. There have been instances where after MGNREGS work allocation, no work information was communicated to the concerned individuals, rendering them without work for the whole year. There have been problems with the MGNREGS wage rate as well.

In the given year the work was offered at an average rate of ₹120 (as per the official MIS), which is way below the minimum wage of ₹192. However, over half of the workers reported receiving a daily wage of ₹80 or below. 2/5th of these workers had received wages between 2 to 8 months when the assigned muster roll was completed, without any compensation for the delay. However, the official MIS shows full payment of wages for these workers.

MGNREGS no doubt is beset with implementation limitations, however, some of the families with no land or a support system have reported that MGNREGS was the only work that they were able to get the previous year. Moreover, the only alternative that stands in front of the people is to turn to the informal labour economy (as earnings from farmland are also precarious due to land fragmentation). The informal sector promises a comparatively higher wage rate, however, can it be treated as a holy grail?

Can Higher Wage Be The Sole Indicator Of Poverty Reduction?

“My husband and eldest son works in a chocolate factory in Ahmedabad. Their work involves putting wood in the boiler all day. They work for 12 hours in a day,” says Dalki Bai, a women’s collective member from Guman village from Gogunda Block of the Udaipur district. “My husband has been sick for a year now and is living at home, so it is only my son who works in the factory,” she adds. Dalki Bai and her eldest son are now the only earning members in a family of 6 people. After her husband was bedridden she started seeking for more workdays under MGNREGS, marginally supporting the family income.

The jobs offered by the informal market arrangement do provide a higher wage rate in the city, thus making it a desirable option. However, the informal work arrangement otherwise takes a toll on people’s lives. Work conditions involved in a garment factory, in construction industry or that of a handloom industry are strenuous.

Such conditions lead the workers to suffer from chronic illnesses as that of tuberculosis. Workers are expected to work in 12-15 hour shifts without suitable compensation. Such physically demanding conditions eventually take away a person’s ability to work causing him to exit the workforce by the age of 35-40 years, which otherwise would be considered peak productive years of one’s life. Due to shorter work spans, children of these workers are forced to join work force by the age of 13-14 years, leading to inter-generational poverty.

Precarious work conditions near a boiler in a factory in Narol, Ahmedabad. (Photo: Anoop Sathyan)

Peculiarities Of The Informal Labour Market

The informal work arrangement is highly treacherous. Most of the work contracts are orally made and often have no legal bindings. This leaves the employer under no constraint to give the worker the originally agreed amount. According to Labour Line, a hotline authorised by the Labour Department, Government of Rajasthan, ₹83,58,201 has been denied to workers working in an informal arrangement by their employers in the past 2 years.

Unable to earn less than a living wage, migrant workers in Ahmedabad resort to living in the open, in shared and cramped rented spaces or within their workspaces. The worst price for the whole arrangement is being paid by the women. Living in open spaces make them susceptible to sexual violence. A simple act of relieving oneself becomes a battle in the absence of properly functioning public toilets.

Schemes of Public Works like MGNREGs though are rife with corruption and does not provide rural households for full 100 days employment in all the cases. However, our experience suggests that the alternative is not to do away with MGNREGS and shifting all the workforce to the private informal economy. Rather, it is to ensure proper implementation of all the provisions under MGNREGS.

The burgeoning capitalist system is not only exploitative but it extracts from the individuals in terms of their production. The comparatively higher wage rate in this sector does not mean a higher standard of living as working in such risky conditions leads to occupational hazards and loss of childhood. The worksites in the factory are a breeding ground of sexual violence, the stories which will never come into the limelight. The informal work arrangement will keep on pushing the poor to the periphery causing even their coming generations to be poor.

About the author: Drishti Aggarwal works with Aajeevika Bureau, a specialised non-profit initiative that provides services, support and security to rural, seasonal migrant workers. The article is based on a study conducted among 15 Panchayats, 54 villages in 4 districts of Southern Rajasthan, with a sample size of 2871 rural households. The insights provided by women in the article are from the women-led solidarity groups called Ujala Samoohs, supported by Aajeevika Bureau.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Well-Bred Kannan/Flickr.
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