Millennium Post

Rural transformation and MGNREGA

Sevanti Bai (45) lives alone in a village in Madhya Pradesh. Her husband died fifteen years ago, owing to health complications. With no land or children to depend on, she fends for herself by engaging in “rojgaar guarantee”, as the locals call the scheme. MGNREGA, she says, has given her a sense of financial and psychological empowerment. She has contributed to village infrastructure by participating in the construction of assets like Meenakshi talao (small pond), stop dams, and other earthworks.

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) mandates 100 days of wage-employment in a financial year to every rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual work. Additionally, keeping in mind the impacts of western disturbances (during Rabi season) and El Nino (during Kharif season) on agriculture, the government announced 50 extra days of employment in drought prone areas, last year.

The recent realisation of an acute water crisis and agrarian distress presents an opportunity for the government and civil society collaborate and further boost MGNREGA to harness its holistic benefits for poor communities. A recent article discusses how Maharashtra Rural Employment Guarantee (that led to the genesis of MGNREGA), successfully used wage employment to mitigate ecological disasters such as droughts in 1977.

Realising its widespread scope in empowering poor, programmes like LIFE MGNREGA that link skills with employment and Integrated Participatory Planning Exercise that improve participation of excluded groups in labour budgets, have been introduced.

Impacts of MGNREGA
Apart from its impact on the economic conditions of the vulnerable, MGNREGA’s needs to be understood in the larger framework of its psychosocial ripple effects. Field visits to Piparvani village in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh during 2013-14 provided qualitative perspectives on the scheme.

Mired by inadequate economic opportunities in the villages, women were engaged in a brick kiln in the pre-MGNREGA days making Rs 80-100 for every 1000 bricks. Strained from fumes, and hazardous materials, these women preferred MGNREGA earthworks, which helped them earn wages equal to their male counterparts. Because of this wage parity, bargaining power of labour has also increased.

The rise in rural wages has been accused of causing farm inflation. However, a 2015 report stated that during 2004-05 to 2011-12 there was a sharp rise in rural wages, but the scheme played only a modest role toward this. The impact albeit minuscule is likely to have provided a safety valve to below poverty line households, battling with agrarian crisis and weather anomalies.

Proximity to work (within 5 km from the village) has helped women contribute to the labour force, especially benefitting marginalised women including farmer-widows. The economic empowerment of women in Piparvani village has also led to a reduction in alcohol abuse, abandonment and domestic violence.

Water conservation structures built under the scheme have improved the ecological health of rural areas (Sameeksha report 2012), adding on to climate mitigation and adaptation. The government has announced MGNREGA Green India Mission—a joint afforestation initiative aimed at improving the green cover while providing livelihoods. This step will contribute towards the creation of carbon sinks under India’s proposed Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Twenty-five thousand saplings were planted on Gwalior’s “Neem Parvat” by utilising rural employment turning a barren mountain into a verdant site. Efforts toward greening infrastructure may contribute to minimising the effects of El Nino-induced drought.

MGNREGA and Sustainable Development Goals
Governments and other institutions are adapting SDGs in their organisational objectives. A strengthened MGNREGA could eventually contribute to achieving some of these goals.

SDG 1 that focuses on “ending poverty in all forms” has social protection schemes under its aegis. This is in synchronisation with the MGNREGA’s objectives. The scheme has also made progress towards achieving gender equality, which is SDG 5.

The implementation of SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) under the scheme could be analysed by checking for provisions like on-site crèches, drinking water facilities, and others. If not, it would present an important case for the government to look into these nuances of the scheme.

Analysis of convergence among government machinery, communities, civil society and Panchayati raj institutions can provide an account of MGNREGA’s contribution towards SDG 17, aiming to strengthen institutional partnerships.

(Swasti Pachauri is a social sector consultant who has worked as PrimeMinister’s Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, India. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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