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The Political Project of the MGNREGA

Ankita Aggarwal (aggarwal.ankita87@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the City University of New York, New York.

Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act by Rob Jenkins, James Manor, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xiii, 323, £25.

 

Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act by Rob Jenkins and James Manor presents a first-rate analysis of the politics of formation and implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA). The MGNREGA legally entitles all rural households of the country to a minimum of 100 days of manual labour every year at a notified wage rate. Workers are entitled to demand work as per their requirement. The administration is duty-bound to allot work within 15 days. If it fails to do so, it is required to pay an unemployment allowance. Workers are also entitled to timely payment of wages and compensation in the case of delays. Their other entitlements include worksite facilities, timely redress of grievances, and oversight of programme implementation. 

The book draws on primary data collected through field surveys in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan from 2008 to 2010 and interviews which continued in the subsequent years. Quantitative data is obtained from various government sources and independent studies. A wide range of other secondary sources also inform the book.

Jenkins and Manor present a total of six arguments. The first two arguments pertain to the evaluation of the MGNREGA’s performance. The next two link the analysis of the MGNREGA’s genesis and implementation with broader debates in Indian politics and political economy. The last two extend beyond India and apply more generally to development politics.

Positive Impact

Jenkins and Manor’s first argument is that, despite its imperfect implementation, the MGNREGA has played a crucial role in improving the material well-being of a significant section of the rural population. The authors acknowledge that this is not a novel claim and, in fact, cite various studies which find a positive impact of the programme on rural incomes. The MGNREGA provides some employment to about 50 million households every year, approximately a quarter of the total rural population. Official data and independent studies confirm that the self-targeting nature of the MGNREGA has helped ensure that its benefits are largely directed towards those poor who would do manual labour for very modest wages (Desai et al 2015). As the MGNREGA has provided an alternative employment opportunities in villages, it has also contributed to the much-needed increase in rural wage rates for unskilled labour (Drèze and Sen 2013).

Jenkins and Manor, however, do not adequately discuss the economic gains accrued from the infrastructure created under the MGNREGA. Two careful studies show that the common criticism that MGNREGA works amount to little more than “digging holes and filling them up” is rather unwarranted. The first is a survey of over 4,000 MGNREGA assets and their users in Maharashtra, in which 90% of the respondents considered the public works to be useful or at least somewhat useful (Kulkarni et al 2015). The second is a survey of almost 1,000 wells in Jharkhand, which estimated the real rate of return of completed wells being used for irrigation to be close to 6%; a respectable level for any economic investment (Bhaskar et al 2016).

The authors’ second argument is that the MGNREGA is part of a political agenda to entrench a rights-based approach to development. Unlike previous employment generation schemes in the country, the MGNREGA entitles rural workers to on-demand access to work. This creates obligations on the state to deliver work, failing which it becomes liable to compensate workers through unemployment allowance. The MGNREGA also entitles workers to plan public works for execution through the MGNREGA and monitor the implementation of the programme. To facilitate such participation, the legislation provides a framework for decentralised planning and implementation of the programme and also includes provisions for transparency and accountability. Although local power relations and social structures often thwart workers’ efforts to claim their entitlements, the legislation provides “institutional means to channel the ensuing discontent into a process of continuous democratic struggle” (p 11).

Debates in Political Economy

The authors’ third contention is that the largely elitist Indian state at times also heeds demands of redistribution. Apart from the MGNREGA, Parliament also passed the Right to Information Act, 2005, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and the National Food Security Act, 2013. Jenkins and Manor illustrate how the “political opportunity structure” allowed a civil society campaign to successfully push for a national employment guarantee act. Exigencies of a coalition government and electoral competition forced the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to promise and deliver such a legislation.

Similar arguments are made by other scholars as well. For Jean Drèze, the MGNREGA “shows that the underprivileged majority is not completely marginalized in this elitist political system. With adequate political organization, their demands sometimes prevail over privileged interests” (Drèze 2010: 511). Deepta Chopra (2011: 90) argues that the “fuzzy and porous boundaries between the state and society” allowed for “interwoven influences that different actors bore upon the formulation process of NREGA.” Reetika Khera (2013) contends that civil society groups used democratic politics to push for the MGNREGA and the National Food Security Act.

Advocates of the MGNREGA consider the legislation as an important shift towards post-clientelist politics, understood as “a system in which a government’s performance in delivering impartially on the ruling party’s stated objectives, and ensuring more effective mechanisms to hold appointed officials accountable, would increasingly influence its political fortunes” (p 14). The fourth argument of the book is that post-clientelist initiatives, such as the MGNREGA, have not eliminated clientelist politics in the country, but have instead altered their nature. In the case of the MGNREGA, provisions for participation, transparency and accountability gradually increased workers’ awareness about their entitlements under the act. This required state-level political leaders to be perceived as sincerely implementing the programme. As a result, instead of milking programme funds across the entire state, they had to restrict their loot to a few worst-governed districts.

Development Politics

Although laws such as the MGNREGA, the Right to Education Act, and the National Food Security Act guarantee social and economic rights, their constituent entitlements are claimed through the exercise of civil and political liberties. Jenkins and Manor’s fifth argument is that the MGNREGA thus represents a new category of hybrid rights, which they term as “governance rights.” According to them, the three most important aspects of the MGNREGA that facilitate this hybridity are: (i) the universal eligibility to seek employment under this legislation; (ii) creation of special-purpose institutions to ensure effective participation of non-state actors in the implementation of the act; and (iii) multiple mechanisms for allowing citizens to directly engage in processes of holding government functionaries accountable.

The authors’ final argument is that the devolution of the MGNREGA funds to gram panchayats has brought the arena of claim-making much closer to the people. Aided by the MGNREGA’s provisions for participation, transparency, and accountability, the people can demand their legal entitlements from their local elected leaders. Jenkins and Manor cite recent studies, in India and elsewhere, which find that, over extended periods, local elected councils can contribute to improving people’s well-being. Gradually, poor people acquire political awareness, confidence, and skills, which enable them to demand public goods and services from candidates contesting local elections. Once elected, local leaders are forced to fulfil at least some demands of the poor voters, in order to secure future electoral victories (Nagarajan et al 2014).

Important Gaps

It is hard to disagree with any of the book’s claims. However, its readers can benefit from a more comprehensive presentation of recent developments and data on the MGNREGA. The book makes no mention of the central government’s move towards the mandatory linkages of the MGNREGA and other social programmes with the Aadhaar project. Since 2010, based on a faulty understanding of the issues that plague these programmes, the central government has been claiming that such a linkage will reduce exclusions from these programmes, improve the ease of accessing their services, and remove “ghost” beneficiaries from their lists (Khera 2011). The insistence on such a linkage has, in fact, increased exclusions from these programmes. The Supreme Court repeatedly prohibited the denial of any public service for the want of an Aadhaar number, but the government violated these orders with abandon. In case of the MGNREGA, many workers without an Aadhaar number could not get access to work (Aggarwal 2016).

The book also does not mention two important modifications in the guidelines of the act. The first is the drastic reduction in the rate at which workers are to be compensated for delays in wage payments. In the initial years after the enactment of the MGNREGA, workers could claim compensation of up to ₹ 3,000, as per the Payment of Wages Act, 1936. But, in 2013, the rate of compensation was slashed to 0.05% of the pending wages per day of delay. Second, the initial guidelines of the act required the implementation of the MGNREGA to be consistent with the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, which mandates spending 3% of the programme funds for persons with disabilities. But, subsequently, this requirement was done away with.

The book was published in 2017, but the time series data is presented only till 2011–12. The reason for this is unclear, as the official MGNREGA website provides real-time data on most aspects of programme implementation, disaggregated till the gram panchayat level. The wealth of data available on this website, combined with other official statistics, could have been used much more for informative interstate comparisons and temporal trends in expenditures, scale of employment, composition of workforce, and other aspects of the functioning of the MGNREGA.

References

Aggarwal, Ankita (2016): “The MGNREGA Crisis: Insights from Jharkhand,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 22, pp 38–43.

Bhaskar, Anjor, Sunil Gupta and Pankaj Yadav (2016): “Well Worth the Effort: Value of
MGNREGA Wells in Jharkhand,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 19, pp 40–48.

Chopra, Deepta (2011): “Policy Making in India: A Dynamic Process of Statecraft,” Pacific Affairs, Vol 84, No 1, pp 89–107.

Desai, Sonalde, Prem Vashishtha and Omkar Joshi (2015): Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act: A Catalyst for Rural Transformation, National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi.

Drèze, Jean (2010): “Employment Guarantee and the Right to Work,” The Oxford Companion to Politics in India, Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Drèze, Jean and Amartya Sen (2013): An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Khera, Reetika (2011): “The UID Project and Welfare Schemes,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 9, pp 38–44.

— (2013): “Democratic Politics and Legal Rights: Employment Guarantee and Food Security in India,” IEG Working Paper No 327, Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi.

Kulkarni, Ashwini, Krushna Ranaware, Sudha Narayanan and Upasak Das (2015): “MGNREGA Works and Their Impacts,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 13, pp 53–61.

Nagarajan, H K, H P Binswanger-Mkhize and S S Meenakshisundaram (2014): Decentralization and Empowerment for Rural Development: The Case of India, Delhi: Foundation Books.

Updated On : 8th Mar, 2019

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