I am very happy to release MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) Sameeksha, brought out by the ministry of rural development. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is perhaps the United Progressive Alliance government’s most popular and successful flagship programme. Jairam Ramesh has written in the ‘Sameeksha’ that it is perhaps the largest and most ambitious social security and public works programme in the world.
Even if statistics do not tell the whole truth, the MGNREGA story in numbers is a story worth telling. In 2010-11, nearly 55 million families, or nearly one in four rural households, were provided over 2.5 billion person-days of work under the programme. This is a sharply higher figure than the 0.9 billion crore person days of work provided in the first year of the scheme in 2006-07.
The scheme scores high on inclusiveness. The share of Scheduled Cast/Scheduled Tribe families in the work has been 51 per cent and that of women 47 per cent. The average wage per person-day has gone up by 81 per cent, since the scheme’s inception. Wages are indexed to protect workers from the ravages of inflation.
Nearly 100 million bank/post office accounts have been opened and around 80 per cent of MGNREGA payments are made through this innovative route, an unprecedented step in the direction of financial inclusion.
The safety net provided by this scheme has helped rural India cope with the frequent distress and natural disasters that are their lot. The combined effect of expanded agricultural production, demand for labour from the construction sector and the effect of MGNREGA has led to a tightening of the market for agricultural labour and a steady rise in real wages. Farmers sometimes complain about this. But rising demand for labour is the only way to help the landless improve their standard of living. The income support provided under MGNREGA has increased the bargaining power of agricultural labour to some extent and it has helped to put a floor under rural poverty as well.
All this is not to say we are fully satisfied with the way the scheme is working. Jairam Ramesh and Mihir Shah have both pointed to the gaps that need to be fixed. But it is probably true that no welfare scheme in recent memory has caught the imagination of the people as much as MGNREGA has. But many challenges need to be overcome. Panchayati Raj institutions have to gear themselves to play the central role assigned to them under the scheme and we have to provide resources to equip the Panchayats to perform these functions effectively. If these local bodies can rise to the challenge, the MGNREGA can very well become a ‘silver bullet’ for India’s rural renewal.
MGNREGA’s potential to revitalise agriculture by creating durable water assets and improving productivity has to be fully exploited. And, this is the direction in which we must move and move fast enough. Going through some of the studies, one recognises the enormous complexity of the issue and the large local variations. The challenge before policy makers is to design more flexible, scientific and community-based approaches that encourage implementing agencies to be innovative and responsive to local needs and circumstances.
Spreading awareness and engendering a sense of commitment and participation among beneficiaries are important goals. The Sameeksha shows how local initiatives are helping to tackle these issues. In Rajasthan, the main provisions of the scheme are being displayed on the walls of gram panchayats. In Jharkhand, voluntary organisations have set up help centres to create awareness and provide hand holding services to beneficiaries. Similar voluntary initiatives could help gram sabhas as well.
MGNREGA is also a pioneering scheme for e-delivery of services and increased transparency. Through the management information system currently used by MGNREGA more than 90 million muster rolls and over 120 million job cards have been placed online... I am encouraged to learn that in Andhra Pradesh data entry is in real time and pay orders for wage payments are generated online. This directly addresses the issue of delayed payments and should be replicated elsewhere. And, as Mihir Shah said, there is a problem in this area and sooner we tackle this problem of delayed payments, I think better results would be in the offing.
The section on gender empowerment is particularly heartening. One study concludes that a silent revolution is taking place among rural women due to the scheme. Wage disparities are being reduced and women are coming out more in the public sphere to take up work and interact with banks, post offices and government officials. This has done wonders for their self-confidence and given them a greater say in financial matters of the household. These are only a few of the many issues that the anthology throws up, whether related to management of funds and resources, convergence of the scheme with rural livelihoods or making the Act work in Left wing extremism-affected districts.
The MGNREGA offers the promise of entitlement, empowerment, security and opportunity to millions of our marginalised citizens. It offers the promise of being a spearhead of rural transformation that spins off positive impulses in agriculture, community development, sustainable livelihood creation, water management and sanitation.
The Sameeksha has a lot of food for thought on where we stand six years, since we launched this historic scheme. I hope policy makers, public representatives, implementing agencies and civil society enable more such independent evaluations, which should become a normal part of our review and evaluation process. I am hopeful that the new operational guidelines that will be issued by the ministry of rural development will address some of the issues that have been brought out in the studies. In conclusion, I compliment Jairam Ramesh and his colleagues in the ministry, Mihir Shah and many others including Ram Manohar Reddy who have put their heart and soul into the success of MGNREGA.
Excerpts from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech on a review of the MGNREGA programme, in New Delhi on July 14