MGNREGA: Today and tomorrow

The programme can provide a safety net for the poor, not just in COVID-19 times, but for times to come

By Sunita Narain
Published: Thursday 27 August 2020

In these darkest days of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — when jobs and economies have collapsed — 56 million households got work in the past three months and these jobs provided relief. This was under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which perhaps is the largest social net scheme in the world.

Down To Earth reporters, who travelled to different regions of the country, found there was a surge for employment and in many places, the most skilled and educated turned to this programme. It effectively put a floor to poverty — people got jobs, though unskilled and manual — but it gave them money, albeit only a daily wage, and this provided them the ability to buy food to feed their families.

The question is how this massive job creation programme can be worked so that the assets created are durable? The programme is providing relief today, but how can it ensure the basis of livelihood security in the future? This is where our focus needs to be. 

Under this scheme, from April to June, when virus crisis was hitting hard and people were returning to their villages — over 600,000 water-related structures were built or repaired. In other words, people were given employment close to their homes to dig ponds or build check-dams or repair the village tank that was not functional. In the rains that have followed, these water-conservation measures would have played a big role to recharge groundwater and mitigate floods — each pond or tank is the sponge that holds the floodwater for the coming dry period.

These then improve agriculture — remember the bulk of India’s farms are irrigated not by canal water, but groundwater. So, everything we do to capture the rain where it falls, and everything we do to conserve that water, paves the way for economic growth. The question now is to measure the sustainability of this asset — is it durable? Does it lead to improved water availability? This is equally crucial but as yet, there is little evidence to show that this change is being monitored for its sustainability.

According to the government dashboard on MGNREGA, between 2017 and 2018 (only one year), 1.3 million works were done in the area of water conservation and groundwater recharge. If you add the works on farm ponds — another 0.35 million — then we should have created huge capacity for water conservation.

Just think of this in another way — simple math. There are some 0.65 million villages in India (2011 Census), and so, if we were to compute, then each village should have at least four water conservation works done in one year itself. Since this is cumulative — new structures are built each year — then over time, we should not have had any water crisis at all!

But we do. There is a massive and crippling water shortage in our villages, and lack of drinking water comes at the price of bad health. The government of India has said, rightly so, that its drinking water mission is not about building hardware, but about water in taps. The water in taps in households can only be secured when groundwater recharge is effective and sustainable.

This then requires water structures to hold and capture rain. So those millions built under MGNREGA must be linked to catchment systems; they need to be functional; and, have to be measured and monitored — not in terms of works, but in terms of assets.

This is where the problem still lies. Even today, the scheme only tracks the “work done”. The Jal Shakti (water) ministry has said it will now track progress in terms of water recharge by these structures. This is welcome. This will make the programme go beyond the work of today — important as it is — to build and strengthen the ecological foundations, or the natural capital, for the livelihoods and resilience for tomorrow.

What is also important is that the “nature” of work has been expanded — from vermicomposting to planting trees. In addition, the government has allowed for “works” to be done in private lands for households below the poverty line — even building toilets or septage systems.

Between April and August when COVID-19 had driven economies to the ground, under MGNREGA, 15.5 million individual works were done. This included everything — from making cattle-sheds and farm ponds to even fencing on lands. Poor people improved their ability to secure their futures and they were paid for this labour.

I write this because we are so cynical about these “labour” schemes — we say that this is the Keynesian way of digging holes and roads that get washed away every season. It is unproductive labour. Then there are those who would dismiss this as another corrupt scheme that adds to the patronage of the locally elected elites.

But, let’s also consider the opportunity that this right to work programme presents, not just in COVID-19 times, but for times to come. But this means that the “right to work” must be transformed into “right to livelihoods”.

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