A blogpost to comprehend the politics behind Mahatma Gandhi NREGA-II and what it entails for the goal of universal employment guarantee in India.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no other policy in recent times which has received as much attention, political and academic, as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). To illustrate, during the recent G-20 labour ministers’ summit, many participants hailed NREGA, alongwith Rashtriya Swasthya Beema Yojana (RSBY), as a piece of innovative and dynamic legislation that should be replicated across the recession and unemployment-hit countries. In the election campaign for Lok Sabha election 2009, the Congress party upheld NREGA as its most significant achievement and, according to many assessments, won owing to the successful canvassing of the act. However, with UPA-II coming to power, we are witnessing a conscious effort to manipulate NREGA to serve whimsical goals of the ‘pseudo-inclusive’ growth agenda.
When NREGA was conceptualized, it was supposed to fulfill the long-standing right to work, which though inherent in the right to life guaranteed under the constitution, was never deemed to be a legally enforceable right. It was also in the specific context of falling employment during the 1990s that the right to work became a major issue, politically. NREGA faced stiff opposition from the corporate class and the pink media, to the extent that famous columnist Swaminathan Aiyer called for helicopters which could drop 5-rupee coins in villages rather than rely on an exercise in waste of public money like NREGA. Unsurprisingly, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), itself, remained strongly anti-employment guarantee till very recently reflecting its deep neoliberal conviction and outlook. On the other hand, the left and other progressive forces protested against the watered down version of the original draft of the act. The Right to Food Campaign, while welcoming NREGA 2005 for its impact on poverty, rural-urban migration, women’s empowerment, public assets in rural areas, rural power equations and bargaining power of unorganized workers; defined the 2005 act as ‘half hearted employment guarantee act’. Nevertheless, in the course of UPA-I, the government as well as the Congress party realized that NREGA is not just another ‘scheme’ and with the Lok Sabha elections victory, everybody has been celebrating the magic of NREGA. Hereafter begins the mysterious story of (MG) NREGA-II.
When one first started hearing and reading about NREGA-II, it was difficult to comprehend what it signified. Initially, it looked like a phrase intended to invoke the victory of UPA-II in the Lok Sabha elections or just another of those media-invented nomenclatures. A little later, when other people also started using the term, it seemed that it could also be reflecting the process of supposed turbulence within UPA-II over social policy. For a moment, it seemed heartening to know that the act was being revamped after the Lok Sabha election results have humbled the PMO over, in particular, the value of an act like NREGA. However, the question remained: what had changed, either in the NREGA or the government, which warranted the repackaging of NREGA-I into NREGA-II?
We begin the story from the initial passage of NREGA during UPA-I. It is an open truth that, from the very beginning, many important provisions under the act have been suppressed by the PMO and his hardcore neoliberal coterie inside and outside the government, including the unemployment allowance and establishing a parallel structure of governance for NREGA. There were enough signals which made sure that unemployment allowance does not become reality even at a single place lest it transformed how employment guarantee was viewed in rural areas. The Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) mandated by the act was definitely formed but without much space for activity and was later almost forcibly dissolved. The state and district level structures were never formed, never talked about during the long period of NREGA-I whereas giving financial and planning autonomy to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) was out of question. The corporate-backed perspective on NREGA reigned supreme at the highest policy level with impunity for long before Lok Sabha 2009 happened. As opposed to the widespread perception regarding existence of two camps in the government over NREGA, we believe that as far as diluting and manipulating the act is concerned, both the camps effectively land at the same spot. Since NREGA had been credited with an election victory, NREGA-II was instituted in collusion of both the neoliberal policy managers as well as the political managers of UPA-II. Consequently, the newly constituted CEGC, corresponding to NREGA-II, is a congregation of state level Congress leaders and other loyalists of the party with only few of the earlier names given prominent space. The role of the new minister for rural development, C P Joshi has been much highlighted in this whole affair; however, it is the larger structure of state policy that we analyse. We, through this analysis, also comment upon the strange mix of social, political and developmental objectives that is now referred to as the ‘inclusive growth’ agenda of the Congress-led UPA-II and how it effectively serves the usual conservative ideological orthodoxy.
We must also note two significant features of the current euphoria over NREGA-II. Firstly, the very fact that NREGA which, at its best, provides a minuscule survival relief to rural poor households has become such an important public policy catch for the Congress party reflects on the wretched state of our social and political reality. If the causal link between NREGA and electoral gain of the UPA is established, then from the demand side, it shows deep levels of desperation and inequality that inflicts our society as well as a crude manifestation of widespread marginalization of rural labour in India. From the supply side, post-NREGA-II, it reflects the mischievous and farcical processes of insulated policymaking and mainstream politicking in the country. Secondly, it is also clear that the ruling class, while absolutely appropriating NREGA, is positioning NREGA-II as the final panacea for resolving numerous contradictions and conflicts facing the country that historical processes and neoliberal policy have created and sustained.
Since it is obvious that there is no contradiction within the government/large part of the ‘civil society’ over how to reconstitute NREGA as NREGA-II, we will now look at the complex maze of camouflaging rhetoric and reality of public policy in India witnessed through pronouncements on NREGA-II. We will also be able to demonstrate that NREGA-II, in its form and content, is a result of a consensual process of making NREGA reforms-oriented and not of any churning within the UPA. That NREGA-II is not merely a flagship scheme of the GoI, but the prime political plank of the Congress party now. Also, it must be emphasized that most of these decisions were made without any democratic consultation and debate.
Firstly, the pioneering ‘innovation’ in NREGA-II concerned permitting work under the act on land belonging to small and marginal farmers and not solely SC/ST households. The definition of small and marginal farmers adopted here (possessing less than 5 acres) would have included more than three-fourth of the total number of farmers in the country. Further, this amendment cleverly avoided making any reference to the distinction between irrigated and un-irrigated land and more powers to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). The ‘rhetoric’ behind this move was to help rural poor at large to combat the pervasive agrarian crisis in the countryside. As is obvious, it is a ridiculous proposition that after refusing to implement any progressive measure in land, labour, credit and agriculture and effectively dismantling the support structure based in policy, the neoliberal combine intends to ameliorate the chronic crisis in rural India, finally, through NREGA-II. Further, with no social and livelihood security, it also looks like a shameless attempt to distribute the humble pie of NREGA-II between agricultural labourers and small and marginal farmers, while making overall compromises on agriculture.
Secondly, for strengthening and building capacities of PRIs to take up work under NREGA-II (though they could rarely exercise their autonomous authority during NREGA-I), the ministry intends to put a ‘community mobiliser’ in every Gram Panchayat who can evince and sustain job demand from the communities and would be called (Rajiv Gandhi) Lok Karmi. Further, drawing from NRHM, NGOs also have a great chance to build ‘capacities’ of communities/PRIs and create demand from within by turning into Lok Sevaks while getting paid for it. The Draft Lok Sevak/ Lok Karmi scheme released by the Ministry of Rural Development has this ironic justification,
“MGNREGA workers are largely non-literate, poor and at the bottom of the social hierarchy and so don’t have either the formal literacy skill to record their rights or to articulate their demands in a written form. This is why absence of written applications for employment, non-issuance of dated receipts, non-payment of unemployment allowances or compensation for delay in wages are indication of not just administrative lapses in record keeping, but a more serious wedge between workers’ rights and the Gram Panchayat”
It is interesting that this scheme has been floated when many fundamental prerequisites for operationalising NREGA have not been in place for quite long. Labourers demand employment and rarely provided within 15 days, when they get they have complaints about wages and conditions of work. We have also seen many news reports where workers of NREGA have attempted unionization and agitated for timely payment of legally due wages across the country. And, the ministry thinks there is no demand for work under NREGA. Further, rather than working towards transferring democratic control of NREGA works to PRIs, the ministry had this novel idea of turning NREGA into a disaggregated NGO-led project. Here, in fact, lies a larger critique of how public programmes are moving away from the perspective of ‘political action’ to ‘capacity building’. Most recent public programmes have identified ‘inadequate demand for public services’ as the core problem in implementation. It is Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) for NRHM and Lok Karmi/Lok Sevak for NREGA-II, obviously through the aid of NGOs. On the contrary, what the oppressed people of India need, at least as far as public programmes are concerned, is not training and ‘procedural facilitation’ through NGOs but a political control over their rightful share of these public programmes. Fortunately, this proposal for NREGA is stalled, for now.
One might also be prompted to ask- why Lok Karmi/Lok Sevak when the act itself prescribed a dedicated set of public functionaries to assist its implementation? Among all this, what happened to the governance structure from centre to districts to blocks to villages for implementing NREGA?
Thirdly, in the name of creating durable and socially profitable assets, the bogey of convergence was raised. When true universalisation of NREGA is still a pipedream, the average work per household remains less than 50 days and there is no effective employment guarantee, convergence with other programmes makes little sense. However, since NREGA-II is now supposed to be solely responsible for the agenda of rural transformation through its impact on income generation, land reforms and sustainable development; the discourse of convergence was added to create bigger and better perceptions about NREGA-II. The problem is that the act was envisaged to be a self-liquidating programme assuming its impact on rejuvenating rural economy and not treating it as ‘once-and-for-all’ rural development policy. After all, what use convergence is if it does not increase the number of total working days and income under the act and just facilitates smooth completion of projects? The best way to go about real convergence is this: Firstly, remove the upper limit on the number of guaranteed employment days under the act (from 100 days per annum) and secondly, turn it into an individual entitlement (and not a household one). The lofty expectations about convergence and cooperation between people, schemes and projects would, in all probability, come true.
Fourthly, NREGA-I experimented with wage payments through banks which failed because a) the problem related to wages is not located in the mode of payment and b) there are no banks in most of the rural areas where the act is operating. It was initially supposed to enhance transparency in the process of wage payments to labourers under NREGA. However, that was not to be since rural banking in India has already been fatally compromised in the 1990s. Come NREGA-II and the innovators started arguing that since there are few banks in most rural areas, the banking correspondent (BC) model would be the most appropriate for timely wage payments under NREGA-II. No words on the conscious abandonment of ‘social and development banking’ and putting a premium, ironically, by state policy on ‘institutional credit’ in the economy. A letter issued to all state rural development secretaries from the Joint Secretary in-charge of NREGA at MoRD (dated 4th March 2010) begins by posing,
“With a view to infusing transparency and enhancing the integrity of wage payments under Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, and also to encourage savings among the rural poor, Schedule II of Mahatma Gandhi NREGA act has been amended to make wage disbursements to Mahatma Gandhi NREGA workers through institutional accounts in banks or post offices a statutory requirement.”
Note how ‘encouraging savings among rural poor’ has been accepted as a principle through MGNREGA after de-institutionalizing credit in rural India and reinstating the Sahukar as the only source of credit within reach for the rural poor. A little while later, the same letter states,
“The pace of financial inclusion under Mahatma Gandhi NREGA has surpassed the pace of institutional outreach of banks and post offices as well as their current capacity to manage such a large number of accounts”
However, the reach as well as capacities of banks were restricted by the same regime which yearns for ‘financial inclusion’. The diktat, hereafter, conveniently moves to BC model and use of SHGs in reaching to the rural poor. So, the goal of “financial inclusion” is also to be achieved through NREGA-II, of course, by opening BC accounts.
Finally, our new collective fad- Unique Identity Number would help keep tab on all the processes under NREGA-II and corruption would be curbed. Many policy documents, including those coming from UIADAI itself, have justified the formation of UIDAI, through its possible impact on the performance of social sector schemes. Since UIADAI has evolved into a final answer to all problems of public programmes in India, let us look into it little closely.
As pointed out earlier, the raison d’être for the UID project in the country is benefitting the poor and vulnerable, almost entirely through efficient and targeted delivery of public services to them. While in the UK and the earlier versions of similar initiatives in India were mainly about controlling terrorism and illegal immigration; the UIDAI has been unequivocal about its intention to ‘alleviate poverty’ and ‘strengthening the excluded’. In fact, UIDAI even has a set of pet programmes like NREGA, RSBY and PDS where it plans to intervene to improve service delivery for the poor. With UIDAI, poor are at the centrestage once again!
UIDAI’s understanding of public programmes in India is predominantly non-programmatic and mainly concerned with ‘efficient and targeted implementation’. Hence, in order to respond to UID, we too restrict our analysis to the implementation flaws of NREGA. One major issue, as already identified, is that NREGA, on an average, has produced less than 50 mandays per household against 100 days promised in the act. The oft-repeated alibi would be that since NREGA is a demand-driven scheme, if people demand employment, they get employment. So, the strange contradiction is that the much spoken about chronic poverty in the countryside does not get manifested in ‘demand’ for employment under NREGA. One way in which demand for employment can actually be ‘created’ might be through more decentralization to PRIs. However, it is quite clear, that owing to misplace contours of ‘governance’ under NREGA (UIDAI itself, being an instance) local planning and demand generation has been largely ignored. Further, regarding wage payments two issues have been on the forefront. One, late payments of wages and two, wages paid below the stipulated minimum wage. Even with the celebrated introduction of compulsory bank accounts, the instances of late payments have not gone down significantly. Wage payments below minimum wage rates have been, at times, result of confusion regarding the district Schedule of Wage Rates (SoR) applicable to different kinds of manual/semi-skilled works. Lower payment to women and illegally employed children is a general feature except in a few states. UIDAI must understand that, in rural India, legal enforcement of minimum wage is not enough when larger processes of caste, social justice and gender dominate. Even for argument’s sake, if lower-end corruption is indeed the biggest issue marring the performance of NREGA, can it be tackled through technology? Initial evidence regarding wage payments through bank accounts seems to have a negative answer. As pointed out earlier, the ironical part of the whole ‘payments through bank accounts’ rhetoric concerns its complete denial of the withdrawal of the state from rural banking structure in the country. Also, with specific reference to NREGA, corruption exists at the level of the village because of deep-rooted nexus between the contractors, the elites and the local government functionaries. One prime way this gets done is through fudging the muster rolls (which are supposed to be kept at the worksite and signed by workers when they receive payments) associated with the works under NREGA. The corruption through muster rolls has not stopped even after the introduction of bank payments (which was celebrated as a technological breakthrough in the programme). The contractor nexus not only influences the wage payments and financial management of the programme, they also critically undermine the democratic and decentralised character of NREGA. The whole debate of quality of public goods created under NREGA conveniently misses the central point about the philosophy of the programme: democratic determination as well as planning of works. How would UIDAI affect the processes of decentralization under NREGA?
Not only this, the provision of unemployment allowance implying a guarantee, has not been paid ever in most of the states. The NREGA governance structure, including the State Employment Guarantee Councils, is yet to appear on picture. On the other hand, democratic control and monitoring in the form of social audits have been fraught with violence and resistance from established vested interests whereas the question of access to equal and dignified work under NREGA remain as urgent as ever from the viewpoint of historically oppressed groups like SCs, STs, Dalits and Women. This predicament regarding the act manifests itself in many ways, from non-issuance of job cards to non-provision of work to Dalit or female-headed households, but it has little relation to state’s inability to recognize them as ‘proper citizens’ through a unique identity number.
In other words, the excitement over UID camouflages the fundamental contradictions inherent in the context and design of the programme; and the intent of policy. None of the implementation issues in NREGA described above can be addressed by possessing a unique identification number.
To conclude, NREGA-II is prone to become another casualty into the hands of the ruling class, if all progressive movements do not take immediate notice of the fundamental changes brought about in the act without even fulfilling the basic objective of ‘universal and guaranteed employment’. A recent news report shows how the NREGA-II leaders and enthusiasts, in their tone and intent, plan to turn NREGA into a techno-managerial black box with misplaced priorities and erroneous strategies. It is also clear that a major expectation from NREGA-II is its impact on rural-urban migration trends and patterns. The news report quotes Mihir Shah, member, planning commission as saying,
“Where durable assets are created, water conservation happens, agriculture productivity is raised and all this is dovetailed with micro-finance, then out-migration from the area is reduced and people go back to farming or other livelihood created by NREGS.”
NREGA-II, hence, is also an instrument to create harmony where there is deep conflict through creating assets, initiating projects of Gandhian scale, technology and microfinance which, in turn, also reduces the disequilibrium-prospect of mass migration. It is not surprising that the discourse of NREGA-II has a disproportionate tilt towards tackling issues of migration, demand generation (through professional NGOs), high-value asset creation and skill generation so that one inexpensive act could compensate for historical injustices, agrarian crisis, unemployment, low education, drastically reduced public investment in agriculture and everything else.
NREGA was celebrated by the leftist and progressive forces in the country because of its unique position on universalisation and employment guarantee. Most of us had also thought NREGA would, in course of time, help combat exploitation in the rural labour market and support the processes of Dalit (landless) and women’s liberation. NREGA, in its original but reduced avatar, had started showing results by exposing the inherent contradictions of village societies and providing a modest pathway for resistance to the vast oppressed pool of rural labour. In many places, the long status-quo of dominant power relations was disturbed through NREGA. Unfortunately, this was taken up as the opportune moment to strike down further possibility of any form of radical action through employment guarantee. Though, we must also note that the assault of NREGA-II on the spirit of NREGA is unlike the reaction of elites and corporates during NREGA-I. As is clear, it is a way to de-emphasise the ‘political’ attributes and objectives of NREGA. It is routine yet profound; innocuous yet deep-reaching and procedural yet political. Hence, the only way to fight it is to expose it.