In August 2005, the Indian Parliament passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (nrega). The latest avatar of state-financed employment guarantee schemes (egs) geared to alleviate rural poverty and create natural resource assets formally kicked into existence in February 2006. How will this programme fare?
To answer this question, Down To Earth (dte) correspondent nidhi jamwal travelled through Maharashtra -- the first state to implement state-wide egs in 1979. Similarly, dte correspondent kirtiman awasthi travelled through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh to follow the fate of the erstwhile National Food For Work programme (now subsumed under the current programme).
What did they find? One, egs remains a famine relief programme state governments run. Two, it has failed to create productive rural assets, and hence failed to develop The rural economy. Three, in the present scheme of things, egs cannot be successful in areas that are forestlands Four, egs has at best created mere pockets of success.
Nevertheless, egs remains the most important source of livelihood and nutrition (via food grain provision) for the rural poor. It remains a most revolutionary scheme, with potential to change rural landscapes. How, then, can the current programme live up to such potential?
Imampur village is in Nagar taluka of Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district, a rain shadow area. For more than two years now, the agriculture department has been implementing a watershed project here, using egs money. But when dte visited Imampur, it found out that while an entire hillock was covered with continuous contour trenches (ccts ), there was no tree plantation. Why? " egs is just one of the hundreds of schemes that we have to implement. It is difficult for us to plan, implement the scheme and then also mobilise the community," says an agriculture officer, Ahmednagar.
The Imampur watershed is 740 hectares (ha) of which 503.93 ha is cultivable area, 57.37 ha forest land, 90 ha wasteland, and 88.70 ha as gaothan. It has 67 wells. Under the watershed project sanctioned under egs, work was done between 2003 and 2004; Rs 48.10 lakh were spent in making ccts and in nalla bunding work. But no plantation work.
Within one year the face of our village has changed," a farmer told the dte correspondent. "Apart from just jowar and bajra , we have started growing tomatoes, gram, onion and some horticulture crops." His comment buttresses agriculture department findings: the total area sown has increased; and so have the number of wells from 42 to 67. The area under irrigation also stands at 166 ha, up from 69.50 ha (see table : More crops, more area to sow upon).
Farmers here seem ready for work linked to their farms, a direct benefit, but shy away from plantation work on the ridge: there is no direct benefit. State agriculture officers agree that it is important to create a sense of ownership in the villagers because egs has no provision for maintenance of assets. "It is very important that all assets are created carefully under egs or else soon a situation may arise when the state government will exhaust all egs sites on paper, whereas not even half functional assets actually exist in the field," says Popat Pawar, sarpanch of Hiware Bazar village.
With time, soil erosion is sure to choke the ccts and the earthen dams downstream. There will be no more water percolation and Imampur will be back to square one. Says an agriculture officer, "There is a need for beneficiary management. For instance, after watershed work water table in the village rises but if there is no water management, then the situation will return to zero within couple of years. Watershed work should not lead to more and more withdrawal of groundwater without its getting replenished. Community development and watershed development have to go hand in hand." When all the government officers understand this logic, why are they unable to implement it at the field level?
Ahmednagar district has a registered labour strength of 270,552 in its 14 talukas and spends between Rs 30-40 crore per annum on egs works (this goes up to Rs 100 crore during extreme drought years). The state government claims that it has done the best egs here, but travel showed success limited to a few pockets. egs is yet to cover the entire district. Why?
"At present there is no coordination between, say, the agriculture department and minor irrigation," says Anna Hazare of Ralegan Siddhi. "Whereas the former will make earthen dams and do compartment bunding, the latter will not make percolation tank to complement that work. And neither will the forest department do plantation at its forest land on the ridge. Hence what you see is individual structures. They look good in isolation but do not make any sense when seen together." Data compiled by the district administration for the last seven years shows good progress so far as village internal roads, and soil and water conservation work are concerned. But percolation tanks and afforestation is way below the mark. Which is why, although most valley work is today complete in Ahmednagar, its hillocks are still barren.
Is this because, under egs, local people have remained either 'labourers' or 'beneficiaries', but have failed to become 'partners'? (see also box: egsvsdpap)
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