The seven reforms that made MGNREGS more useful
While there is always room for improvement, a lot has been achieved through these reforms under MGNREGS.
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has been in the news recently. While the MGNREGA was passed in 2005, independent studies by Niehaus and Sukthankar in 2013 and Imbert Clement and John Papp (2014) had found the scheme plagued by corruption. Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee recently acknowledged the plugging of leakages in MGNREGS over the last five years. Clearly the efforts to clean up MGNREGS through use of technology have been effective.
The Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi study on MGNREGS, headed by Manoj Panda in 2018, found only 0.5% Natural Resource Management (NRM) assets to be unsatisfactory. This is a proxy indicating sharp reduction in leakages. This has been possible on account of a range of reforms in MGNREGS, some of which were acknowledged in Chapter X of the Economic Survey 2019. What are these reforms that have made a difference?
First, in the true spirit of the MGNREGA, it was seen as an opportunity to enhance the livelihood security of rural households. There was a thrust on durable assets like farm ponds and dug wells that increase incomes. Animal sheds for marginal and small farmers were taken up along with 90/95 day wage labour support to landless manual casual labour who were provided housing under Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana-Gramin (PMAY-G). Water conservation was given a focus by notifying Mission Water Conservation guidelines for MGNREGS in 2016 and following up with adequate capacity building. It was made clear that MGNREGS is not a pension scheme but a programme for livelihood security.
Second, Individual Beneficiary Schemes which accounted for 21.4% of the total works in 2014-15 now account for 67.29%. Over 18.17 lakh individual farm ponds, 10.56 lakh Vermi/Nadep pits, 4.85 lakh soak pits, 5.16 lakh wells, support for 1.54 crore rural housing beneficiaries, 1.3 lakh goat sheds, 5.56 lakh cattle sheds have been constructed over the last five years on account of the thrust on livelihood security. From 36.18 lakh works completed in 2015-16, the total completed works rose to 89.86 lakh in 2018-19 on account of better monitoring of outcomes. Over 15 million hectares benefited from the water conservation thrust and 40–50,000 villages could improve their water security.
Third, complete transparency was given the highest priority with Aadhaar linking of accounts, near 100% electronic Fund Management System (eFMS), 100% IT/DBT and geo-tagging of assets, improved public record system, and most importantly a strengthened system of Social Audit to hold local government leaders accountable to the community. Over 97% wage payments are now generated within 15 days and over 75% actually credited in the workers’ account within 15 days.
Fourth, changes were brought in the programme by making 60:40 wages to material ratio applicable at the district level instead of at gram panchayat level. This ensured evidence-based selection of works. 60% works were earmarked for agriculture and allied sectors and states were encouraged to come up with state specific water conservation and afforestation efforts. By making 60:40 work at district level, it was possible to take up priority public infrastructure like anganwadi buildings under MGNREGS and 42,716 have been completed in the last five years. Each and every asset, right from the inception of the programme, can be seen on the public website.
Fifth, the labour budget of states was drawn on the basis of manual casual labour and deprivation counts, to ensure that states with more manual casual labour and deprivation got more of the MGNREGS resources. The Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC) finalised in July 2015 provided an opportunity to ensure that MGNREGS funds went to the poorest regions of the country. Linking 90/95 days of work with the rural housing programme which also used SECC based deprivation, it was possible to substantially raise labour budgets in poorer regions.
Sixth, seeing climate change impact showing up in one-fifth of the districts every year in the form of low or late rains, a provision was made to notify 150 days of work in such regions that had a natural calamity or drought. This too focussed on work provision where it was required.
Seventh, efforts were made to continuously improve the community connect and partnership of panchayat leaders, women self-help groups under the Livelihood Mission and the frontline workers through a People’s Plan Campaign. Each and every gram panchayat of the country has been ranked in 2018. The same process is happening now for 2019 and all rankings are in the public domain on www.gpdp.nic.in. The Gram Swaraj Abhiyan for ensuring seven benefits to every deprived/ eligible household in 65,000 purposively selected villages in mission mode in 2018-19, is an excellent example of community connect.
While there is always room for improvement, a lot has been achieved through these reforms under MGNREGS. Even during a period when prices of agriculture commodities have not risen and wage increase has been modest, it has been possible to expand the asset base of the poor and diversify and develop livelihoods on a much larger scale.
It is true that assetisation and emerging education, gas, electricity bills, and health spend of households have altered the basket of goods and services that poor households consume and perhaps this needs to reflect better in the Consumer Price Index for agricultural labourers. The Labour Bureau is working on it. MGNREGS durable assets, livelihood and water conservation thrust and 90/95 days under PMAY-G for the poor, have improved the lives and livelihoods of the poor.
The writer is a civil servant. Views are personal