A million opportunities lost

The ruling alliance’s flagship rural employment programme took unprecedented strides in creating water conservation structures across the country, but only to harvest disillusionment. What went wrong? Richard Mahapatra travels to Jharkhand, M Suchitra to Andhra Pradesh and Moyna to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in search of answers

By Richard Mahapatra, M Suchitra, Moyna
Published: Thursday 15 December 2011

A million opportunities lost

employment programme

This is the little known big story of India’s nationwide rural employment programme. In the past five years the programme has sought to create tanks, ponds, wells and revive traditional water conservation structures at a scale and pace not witnessed before in the country. Millions of people in the countryside seeking jobs under the programme embarked on building or reviving 3.4 million water conservation structures, according to the Union rural development ministry. This is unprecedented given that before 2005, all the public wage schemes together created just about two million structures in six decades.

The programme, run under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), assures 100 days of manual employment to any rural household that demands work. Under the Act, creation of water conservation structures is compulsory. As a result, today Indian villages have more per capita water structures than hospital beds, school teachers and policemen put together. Official data shows every village has six-seven such structures. Ask any old-timer in a village, this is more than enough to capture sufficient water for a village’s water security round the year.

More bounty awaits Indian villages this year. States have submitted proposals for 5.4 million more water conservation structures under the employment programme for this fiscal. If taken up, these proposals will more than double each village’s capacity to harvest water.

MGNREGA, credited for the ruling United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) re-election in 2009, has emerged as the world’s largest public wage programme, with a budget that does not have a match in India’s past. In the past five years, the Central government spent close to Rs 110,000 crore on the programme or about Rs 45 lakh for every panchayat. Of this, the spending on water conservation structures was close to Rs 54,000 crore.

Arguably, these structures should have created a huge water harvesting capacity. The programme claims the added capacity is 3.07 billion cubic metres under water conservation and renovation of traditional water bodies, two of the four categories of water-related works under MGNREGA. This can take care of the drinking and cooking water needs of the country. Irrigation channels dug under the programme cover enough distance to make two return trips to the moon (see ‘Potential created’).
The country’s poorest and smallest farmers own a major share of these structures because the Act allows people belonging to Scheduled castes and tribes to take up irrigation works on their own land. The community participated enthusiastically in the programme, creating facilities to irrigate close to six million hectares (ha). This almost compares to the country’s total irrigation target for the 11th five-year plan from all sources. During the plan period the government set a target of restoring 20,000 traditional water bodies; MGNREGA has revived more than half a million of them.

This should have been an economic boom for the villages. Every structure gives two benefits: cash as wage and increase in agriculture due to water availability. The National Council for Applied Economic Research in 2009 found that 60 million people were taken above the poverty line because of the programme. This is based on the wage money people got. The rural development ministry claims per household earning nearly doubled between 2006-07 and 2010-11.

Although there is no consolidated ecological and economic impact assessment of the programme, government does make public statements about its “impressive” impacts. D K Jain, joint secretary with the ministry who is in charge of the programme, says, “The 2009 drought was more severe than the 2002 one but the year reported 0.4 per cent more agricultural production. That is the impact of the programme.” Several studies done on small scale indicate benefits from water conservation works, like increase in incomes, groundwater levels and irrigated area.


Potential watered down

Shouldn’t the country celebrate this feat? No, say many villages across the country. “My dream crashed with MGNREGA,” says Dibar Tuti, a resident of Salgadih village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, pointing at a collapsed well in his small farm. Three years of drought had left his farm parched, forcing him to migrate for sundry work. In April, the state government decided to dig 112,307 traditional wells under MGNREGA to overcome drought. Owning a well was Tuti’s dream. He had seen many people walking out of the poverty trap doing vegetable farming. Khunti and adjoining districts are known as the vegetable bowl of the state, thanks to the government drive in late 1980s called Million Well programme that created a large number of wells. Assured irrigation encouraged small farmers to take up vegetable farming. “I thought I would also become rich with a well,” says Tuti.

He did come close to his dream. The gram sabha (village council) approved a well on his land. But the decision came late, in the end of May. By the time the well was sunk up to the stipulated 35 feet, monsoon arrived. Without stone lining, the well collapsed. “I lost part of my farm and the well,” says Tuti.

Like Tuti, the state also lost a great pool of assets and an opportunity to fix poverty. Within a month of showers, the success story turned sour. By the time monsoon arrived most of the wells were not complete and collapsed. The state’s rural landscape is now littered with collapsed wells. “At least half the structures are completely lost. Some of the rest can be revived,” says Ramesh Sharan, an economist who has extensively studied the region’s economy and is also member of the State Employment Guarantee Council, the guiding body for the programme.

water structure

Revival seems difficult now. There is a virtual boycott of MGNREGA in the villages. In most cases wages have not been paid till date. On October 2, village council meetings took place in Khunti and Gumla districts, like elsewhere in the state. “We found very few people willing to work under the scheme,” says Punita Oraon, a panchayat member of Lakia village in Gumla district. “First people lost a big opportunity to earn more. Then they lost their land. Now they have not been paid wages as well. Is there a reason they will want to work for MGNREGA?” she asks. In Lakia, residents who worked on 35 wells got payment after a year.


“Late payments were due to a delay in release of funds from the Union government. The price of stones also went up because of the huge demand caused by the extensive well construction,” says Ajay Kumar Singh, the state MGNREGA commissioner. Workers get paid only after the works have been measured and recorded. Only 2.65 per cent of the works in Jharkhand have been measured till date, going by government’s own data. This means wages in case of 97 per cent of works have not been paid.

imageThe potential lost is enormous. Going by the experience of the Million Wells programme, each well could have irrigated 0.4 ha. This means the state lost 45,450 ha of irrigation potential, an impressive figure given that only 11 per cent of the agricultural land in the state has irrigation facilities. “A well irrigates two-three crops even when water is available till March. Our research shows each well would have led to Rs 30,000 annual income per family,” says Sharan.

A year ago a similar campaign to take up pond construction met with a similar fate. Since 2006, Jharkhand has accumulated more than 200,000 incomplete water conservation works. “We have lost a big opportunity,” adds Sharan.

Across the country thousands of water structures, each a potential money spinner, have been abandoned. Reasons vary from wage delay to lack of planning to taking up structures without factoring in the capacity of local institutions. During 2006- 2011 (till September) only around 1.2 million water conservation works could be completed, while the rest are either in progress or suspended. The number of works suspended or in progress has steadily risen since the inception of the programme in 2006, from 0.25 million to 2.54 million (see ‘Potential killed’). Though water conservation works account for 60 per cent of the total permissible works under the scheme, completed water works are just 38 per cent of total completed works. This is a decline of 10 per cent since 2006. Similarly, in case of works that have been approved but not started, water works top the list, with an accumulation of around 4.4 million works by 2011.

Missing annual village plan

But are the 1.2 million completed works yielding benefits? Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh, the first to implement MGNREGA, provides some answers. The district’s record in creating water conservation assets is impressive. Under the employment guarantee programme, an average of 38 water conservation works have been created in each of the distri ct’s 3,384 villages. In the past two years, the district has dug 8.5 million cubic metres of trenches, 30,000 farm ponds and 10,000 percolation tanks, including rock dams. This potential can irrigate one crop in around 70 per cent of the district’s farms. In reality the impact has been very different. This potential has not made farming more attractive. “Unable to bear the stress of agriculture, many farmers are leaving farming and joining labour force,” says Bablu Ganguly, chairperson of Timbaktu Collective, an NGO working on water and soil conservation and organic farming.

imageThe district is one of the driest in the country. It has been fighting desertification that threatens its dominantly agrarian economy. MGNREGA has all the ingredients to stop desertification. It mandates a village plan and a five-year district plan to use MGNREGA to revive village ecology. But stopping desertification was not planned, points out E Somasekhar, former sarpanch of Koduru village in Chilamathur mandal. In fact, Anantapur has not even developed the mandatory perspective plan. This has also affected the water conservation work in many villages. For instance, in the first two years, one of the major works identified was building earthen bunds for water harvesting. Bunds were built even in black soil that cannot hold such bunds. “Such works were taken up many times in the same place without any result,” points out D Ramesh, former sarpanch of Chhayapur village. Though hundreds of rock-fill dams have been constructed, many hold water only for a few days. “When there’s no water, villagers take away the rocks for other purposes,” says A Ramachandra, a farmer in Gandlaparthy village of Raptadu mandal. Some 5,000 such works are shown completed but are of no use.

The most common complaint is non-involvement of the community in planning the structures as stipulated by the Act. Under the Act, each village is required to prepare an annual plan based on local needs. This plan indicates the types of works to be undertaken. When people demand employment their labour is used to take up these works. At the district level, all the village plans get consolidated into a district perspective plan that spans over five years.

One can see a semblance of planning in villages where NGOs are active. “But in many other villages gram sabhas are nominal executives where only 20-30 people participate,” says Ramesh of Chhayapur. None of the village panchayats has prepared the mandatory village plan. In absence of a substantial impact on agriculture, MGNREGA is being treated as a mere wage-earning programme. The aim of MGNREGA is precisely the opposite: to revive a village’s ecology and economy so that it no longer requires the programme.

Lack of people’s participation has negated the programme’s potential, even in districts considered successful in implementation. In Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district, widely acknowledged for effective implementation of the employment programme, people have written it off as just another wage-earning scheme. Ramesh Bohra of Rampur village switched from farming to selling tea, using money earned under MGNREGA. He does not find farming sustainable despite canals and check dams.


From 2006 till August 2011, Dungarpur spent Rs 482.6 crore on 31,614 water structures. Based on the secondary data, Rajasthan MGNREGA commissioner Tanmay Kumar claims between August 2010 and July 2011, the state created 20 billion litres of additional water capacity. This would imply availability of 30 to 50 litres per person per day. Official figures show enough water harvesting capacity built since 2006 to meet 30 per cent of the district’s irrigation need. But the district continues to be declared drought-affected. Cultivable land has increased only marginally in the past five years. Officials blame it on deficient rain but the deficit is barely 50 per cent of the total.

Some like Karulal Kotardh of Deval village believe the impact of MGNREGA has been limited because of lack of planning. “If you study the check dams and ponds created since 2006, they are just blocking water and not assisting irrigation,” he says. In his village two ponds were dug in 2008. Neither provides irrigation as no canals were dug to carry water. Pujilal Damor, another resident of Deval, explains, “There has been so little rain in this area that we have not worked on water structures much.” This year, he says, the district received 20 per cent more than normal rainfall and the embankment of one of the two ponds in his village gave way. This happened because “we are located on higher ground and the mud embankment could not take the pressure”.

In Deval, of the 181 works sanctioned only 70 were those mentioned in the gram sabhas, says Umesh Bandat, the son of the panchayat head. He claims there is no longer demand for water works like anicuts and check dams.

No wage, no interest

In Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district as well residents gave the thumbs down to the programme. Nestled in the hills of the Satpura and Vindhyachal ranges, the region is criss-crossed by streams and natural storm water drains. But during 2007-10 it reeled under a severe drought. This fuelled people’s interest in water conservation, and MGNREGA was the perfect instrument. In just five years, work on 5,439 water conservation structures were taken up. This slowed the tide of migration out of the villages, but not for long.

imageVal Singh of Limbi village in Pati block says five years ago about 75 per cent of the village migrated and this number decreased to nearly 25 per cent following the implementation of the scheme. It is rising once again. “The rise in migration is the result of delayed payments, which are four to six months late,” says Singh. In a village close to Limbi, Sawariyapani, five people left the village in search for work last year. This year that number has risen to 30.

About the delayed payments, Barwani MGNREGA Project Officer Afsar Khanhe says as per rules they need to be made within 15 days but measurement of work, submission and cross-checking of reports, and sanctioning wages take at least 20 working days. This has led to works being abandoned halfway. Official data supports these claims. In the district, 18,704 water conservation works have been reported as ongoing or suspended between 2007-08 and 2011-12. Only 2,734 works have been completed.

Begalgaon is one of the many villages scattered with incomplete works. Its residents say they are rarely taken into confidence before deciding the kind of work or sites. Har Singh of Sawariyapani says that in 2009-10 the gram sabha had requested for continuous contour trenches and cattle prevention trenches to prevent soil erosion and assist water conservation. “Instead, we were told that dug wells will have to be constructed,” says Har Singh.

Demand goes down

India has literally snatched a failure from the jaws of success. The programme’s most important provisions, like community-driven village planning and priority of local needs, have not been pursued seriously. Although the Act emphasises village-level planning for assets creation, there is no mention of making the assets durable and, thus, productive. In fact, MGNREGA does not have any provision for completion of work. It is also a reflection of governments giving precedence to employment over durable productive assets.

Incomplete water structures are of no use to communities. This has discouraged people from taking up water conservation works. Across the country demand for road connectivity works under MGNREGA has increased. The reason people demand more roads than other works is that roads fetch wages quicker and the results are immediately visible as opposed to those of water conservation.

At the national level, the percentage of water conservation works to total works undertaken is declining steadily (see ‘Water structures v roads’). In 2006-07, completed water conservation works accounted for 48 per cent of the total completed works. This has decreased to 38 per cent in 2011-12. Going by the rural ministry data, though water conservation works have been approved in large numbers, work has not started. Such works account for 75 per cent of the approved-but-not-in-progress works. Road connectivity works, on the other hand, have picked up. Only five per cent of the road connectivity works approved have not been taken up. “Roads have become more popular because they are cost-effective and can be outsourced to contractors. This leads to greater possibility of money siphoning,” says Ved Arya, director of NGO SRIJAN, the programme implementing partner, and member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council.

The performance review committee of MGNREGA has compiled data that shows demand for all kinds of work under MGNREGA is decreasing as well. In 2010-11, average employment provided per household was 47 days against the guaranteed 100 days. In fact, the average has reduced in 18 states with high casual labour workforce. Arunachal Pradesh reported 71 per cent decline, while Karnataka reported 33 per cent decline in the past five years despite severe spells of drought. Maharashtra, with large casual labour population and under an agrarian crisis, reported 25 per cent decline.

Government and non-government experts differ in interpreting this data. Government says it is precisely because of the programme’s focus on village development that people have become less dependent on MGNREGA. Others say lack of people’s involvement and the incomplete nature of works have discouraged people from participating in the programme. IIT Chennai that surveyed the programme in Tamil Nadu found that if people’s expectations are not captured in the programme’s implementation, it would not have any participation (read demand for jobs).

It is a vicious cycle. Incomplete work results in disillusionment, and disillusionment leads to more incomplete works.

imageWhy MGNREGA is slow in building assets


Absence of village plans

To begin with, the work plans of the earlier Food for Work Programme, prepared by government officials, were adopted. Communities should draft village plans but in most cases it does not happen. Most water structures are built without any understanding of their catchments or technical inputs. Consequently, the structures do not give optimum results


Incomplete works never completed

This was noticed in the beginning but no one did anything about it. Every year new works were taken up with the same faulty plans and before completing the incomplete works. The labour force available is also limited because demand for work is not so high


No compulsion to complete work

MGNREGA has no provision to finish works. Works are abandoned for lack of labour. Officials blame it on the low ratio of material cost. Works are stopped when material cost reaches the stipulated norm


Wage delay keeps people away

Many people withdraw from work halfway because wages are paid very late. At times it takes months


Irrational wage

Digging wells or tanks is labour-intensive and skilled work but payment is according to the volume of earth dug. So working on water structures fetches wage disproportionate to labour. That is why road construction is gaining popularity

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