By Kaajal Joshi
As India and the world grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, the persons most disproportionately affected, predictably, are the poor and the marginalised. India saw harrowing images of thousands of migrant labourers and their families trudging back hundreds of kilometres to their villages away from the larger towns and metropolises.
They had lost their daily wage jobs due to the lockdown imposed by the government and thus lost their primary sources of livelihood and sustenance. The villages they’ve returned to are not well equipped to tide them through this crisis.
With the initial imposition of the pandemic-related lockdown, India’s long distressed rural economies faced another jolt—delayed harvests, restrictions on crop transportation, and temporary closures of agricultural markets.
Estimates state that 70% of rural households report a drop in household income, and 78% of those surveyed reported their work “coming to a standstill”. With approximately 65.5% of India’s population living in rural areas—of which currently an estimated 30% lives below the poverty line—the loss of livelihoods has also had severe impacts on food security, health, and education.
In a widely circulated news story, a teacher in Rajasthan with a Masters degree who couldn’t work during the lockdown turned to a government scheme called the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as a source of income.
As India gradually “unlocks”, the main sources of sustenance for the rural poor remain government-provided rations and social security schemes, the largest of which is MGNREGA. As the name implies, it guarantees paid employment for 100 days in a year to all rural households, where workers perform unskilled, manual labour on “works” or projects related to agricultural and overall rural infrastructure/asset creation.
One of the key features of this Act is revealed through its origins. Passed in 2005, it was initially piloted in 200 of the poorest districts in the country, gradually scaling up nationwide by 2008. By 2015, the World Bank described it as the largest social security scheme in the world. An important thing to note about MGNREGA is that obtaining work under this programme is a right/entitlement, not a benefit.
MGNREGA is not just a guarantor of employment. The way the Act is structured addresses various aspects of socio-political and economic relevance in the Indian context. The scheme is demand-based, which means that people who register for employment under the scheme must be provided work within a stipulated time period and paid an unemployment allowance, thus assuring them at least some income.
A minimum 1/3rd of all workers at a job site must be women, which facilitates female labour force participation. Gram Sabhas and other Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) are the main drivers of implementing the Act. Their duties range from determining the projects/works to be undertaken, executing at least 50% of them, monitoring and implementing the works.
Making PRIs the local nodal agencies facilitates local governance and agency in determining what structures and infrastructure are needed in the village to meet the community’s needs. The programme also provides for information disclosure, transparency, and accountability through information boards in each village, a regularly updated Management and Information System (MIS) to track asset creation, job cardholders and wage payments, and periodic social audits conducted by PRIs to assess the implementation of the scheme overall.
The government’s own internal evaluations, as well as evaluations by various academics and civil society stakeholders, present a mixed picture of the effectiveness of the scheme in terms of meeting its main objectives—employment provision and rural development. MGNREGA Sameeksha 1 and 2 reports have demonstrated that MGNREGA created works and assets that are useful to communities and that their quality has been increasing over the last 20 years.
They also show that MGNREGA has helped provide agricultural workers and small- and medium-sized farm owners work and income during agriculturally lean months. MGNREGA has also helped reduce migration due to lack of work in the short term, increased women’s labour force participation in rural areas, raised rural wages overall, enabled workers to avoid hazardous work, and helped them provide better education for their children. The scheme has, thus, been useful in alleviating rural distress.
However, as with most large government schemes in India, there are gaps in implementation, and plugging them is crucial to provide meaningful and effective relief during this pandemic. Delays in wage payments and non-payment of past dues, unavailability of adequate work, exclusion due to lack of access to banks and Aadhar cards, and technical glitches resulting in payments to incorrect bank accounts are some of the long-standing issues with the scheme.
Further, returning migrant workers are adding to the job demand in villages. At a higher level of grievance, MGNREGA wages have consistently been lower than the minimum wage for agricultural workers in almost all States and Union Territories’ since 2009. Even during the pandemic, MGNREGA workers have been agitating for higher wage rates and more workdays.
The government has recognised the need to strengthen MGNREGA and has raised the allocation for this year’s MGNREGA budget to ₹100,000 crores in its Atmanirbhar Bharat stimulus package. Acknowledging the need to protect urban livelihoods as well, talks are underway to introduce a similar scheme for smaller towns.
The earlier mentioned story of the teacher who could turn to MGNREGA for a job at this time highlights the best-case scenario of how this programme can work—however, the reliability of MGNREGA as a social security provision hinges on its proper implementation.
PRIA conducted a survey of returning migrants in panchayats of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. While 71% received work, they faced significant difficulties related to delayed wage payments, delays in inclusion in job cards, lack of access to bank accounts and incorrect entries in the muster rolls.
The immediate priority of both central and state governments must therefore be to ensure that the current demand for work under MGNREGA is met; that MGNREGA work is not denied to people solely on the basis of the lack of an Aadhar card; that people get to cash in hand/ or their bank account in time; and that proper precautions for the health and safety of workers are taken at work sites.
These gaps are especially disempowering during this pandemic and need to be addressed rapidly to mitigate the additional distress faced by rural Indians. Further, addressing these implementation gaps will make the scheme meaningful in essence—as a guarantor of work and dignified living in times of need that also helps augment rural living standards.
Originally published here on PRIA’s blog.