Some basic employment, but a long way to go

As per a recent paper in Development Policy Review, 2017, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), in order to enhance food security and well-being through employment in India, needs to explore longer-term solutions for employment security. An investment of around 5.3 billion dollars which amounts to 0.3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product has been made. The study conducted by Rhonda Breitkreuz et al probed the extent to which MGNREGA has reached its stated policy goals.

The study titled ‘The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme: A Policy Solution to Rural Poverty in India?’ sets out to do this through assessing the extent to which this scheme has been able to provide rights-based social protection through guaranteed employment for marginalized groups, particularly Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and women. The theoretical question asked is: will this policy achieve meaningful poverty reduction for marginalized citizens in India?

As per the authors, the study contributes to the literature on MGNREGA in a unique way. It provides evidence from an in-depth qualitative study that offers insight into policies from the perspectives and experiences of local people in local sites (an emic perspective) in the spirit of a critical ethnographic tradition. This study goes beyond the existing ones which consist primarily of aggregate national, state level or multi-state evaluations.

The study explored the issue using focus group methods in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha. The experiences of respondents differed based on how the MGNREGA wages compared to market wages as also on the local implementation of the program.

Two main findings emerge from the study. First, “although MGNREGA offered some basic employment for marginalized groups, it did not provide substantial help to the most vulnerable”. Second, “there was some evidence of small but significant shifts in labour relations”.

The study states that there were some notable differences in usage and implementation between study sites. The experiences of participating in MGNREGA varied according to how MGNREGA wages compared to market wages in the region and the implementation of the programme within the local sites. Gender and social status also seemed to impact the experience of MGNREGA for many participants. Second, although MGNREGA did offer some important opportunities for employment for women, SC and ST, thereby providing access to wages to purchase food and other essential items, on balance it did not substantially help the most marginalized in the long term. This was due to the predominance of low wages compared to the private market (as in Kerala and Tamil Nadu), or lack of work (as in Odisha). Importantly, participants in all project sites indicated that the wages offered by MGNREGA were not sufficient to support their families.

However, despite lack of evidence of any substantial improvements in wages, employment and overall life circumstances, there was some evidence of small but notable shifts in labour relations. SPWD’s experience of MGNREGA in the state of Rajasthan is somewhat similar to that of study state of Odisha. Based on evidence from the end users of the policy SPWD notes in its annual report “Rajasthan has a good potential for MGNREGA implementation given its agro-climatic factors. Also, awareness level among communities about these is high, particularly in areas where civil society organizations are working with rural communities. The state performed well in the initial years of MGNREGA and communities got benefitted. Later, the implementation slowed down and several challenges emerged in recent times. The performance in terms of employment generation and delivering of 100 days employment along with expanding activities to complement the agenda of durable asset-creation and eco-restoration was not up to the mark. With the result, that the key indicators showed a downward drift” (SPWD, Annual report, 2015-16).

To conclude, the study suggests that “higher wages, more opportunities for work, better implementation and a greater recognition of the caregiving responsibilities of women will be required for this policy to fully meet its goals”.

The full report can be accessed here

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