The MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme has successfully completed 10 years. In all these years the total expenditure on this programme has been rupees 3.14 lakh crore and has generated work of 1980 crore person days. Considered one of the biggest social welfare programmes in the world, this programme aims at generating 100 days of work in rural areas. In the last 10 years, the programme has lifted lakhs of people out of poverty, though many lacunas still exist in it. The present government which initially showed little hostility towards this programme has now however hailed the decade of completion of this scheme as a cause for national pride and celebration.
It was in February 2006, that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was for the first time notified on an experimental basis in 200 odd districts across the country – exactly 10 years ago. The event marked a watershed in the right-based entitlement framework of the country and for the first time provided a legal guarantee for wage employment. The Act, guaranteed a minimum 100 days of employment out of the 365 days in a year to every willing household, within 15 days of making such a requisition. It should also be noted here that this is the only law in the country that is not budget constrained and is not supply driven.
Out of the total jobs created so far, the percentage of hours put in by women has increased steadily, much above the statutory minimum of 33%. According to the Rural Development Ministry, out of all the workers benefited under the scheme, the percentage of Scheduled Caste workers has consistently been about 20% and of Scheduled Tribe workers has been about 17%.
However, few people are demanding a change in the type of the work being given to these unskilled labourers under this programme and also a change in the type of assets being created under it. At this juncture, it is understood that the scheme cannot run without money. There are many states without money to run this programme. This is a scheme which cannot be run by states and centre has a greater role in it. The centre should not follow bottom down approach in running this scheme.
There is also an allegation the scheme is not able to deliver what is really expected. It has not been able produce the amount of actual labour that is being demanded by the people. The demand is there but is artificially suppressed. Hence, experts argue that some consistency should be maintained in the implementation of this scheme.
MGNREGA is also said to have changed the face of whole rural labour and rural India. In places where it was effectively implemented, it empowered people, and in places where it was not implemented effectively, it gave powers to laboureres to demand higher wages. It has given dignity to them and has acted as a market mechanism. This legislation has been bringing about a silent revolution in rural areas of the country. The Act for the first time brings the role of the state as provider of livelihood within the reach of the participants/beneficiaries themselves. By design it is different from any employment generation scheme that has been previously implemented. It requires different approach towards employment generation schemes and towards overall involvement of the State in providing the right to employment to its masses.
Now, the government has said that it will focus on simplification and strengthening of procedures for the effective implementation of MGNREGA as an employment guarantee. It’s time to identify the problems and solve them. The good news is that MGNREGA has witnessed a proliferation of experiments, mostly in better governed States, from creating improved financial management systems to using technology-enabled banking solutions like smart cards, social audits and building grievance redressal systems. The focus must now be on evaluating these experiments and drawing lessons to improve administration in the poorly governed States.