The MGNREGS is particularly relevant in states such as Orissa, where different estimates put the number of poor at 48% to 84%. But while Rajasthan provided 74% of eligible families with work in 2009-10 and Andhra Pradesh 52.6%, Orissa provided work to only 24% of eligible families. No wonder there’s been a 116% increase in rural migration.
India’s flagship programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), was enacted with the multiple objectives of providing employment in a rights-based framework, addressing rural poverty, checking migration, and building rural infrastructure. It came into operation on February 2, 2006. Many say it is because of the success of the scheme in various states that the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government made a comeback to the Lok Sabha in May 2009.
The NREGA was renamed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) on October 2, 2009.
Poverty in Orissa
Orissa has a total population of 367 million, according to 2001 census data. Of this population, about 22% belong to the scheduled tribes and 16% to the scheduled castes — both extremely vulnerable communities. According to official figures, around 48% of the state’s people are poor (1997 BPL survey), although a committee constituted by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), headed by Dr N C Saxena, places the figure at 84.5%. Similarly, the Tendulkar Committee on estimation of poverty, appointed by the Planning Commission of India, puts the figure at 57%.
Given the state’s high poverty figures, the MGNREGA holds great significance for the people in terms of addressing poverty and unemployment. But in the four-and-a-half years of its existence, has the scheme brought about any real changes in the lives of Orissa’s poor?
Performance of the MGNREGS
From the official data available on the NREGA website, Orissa’s expenditure in 2008-09 was only 10% of what it could have been had all poor families with job cards been provided 100 days of employment. In 2009-10 expenditure is only 12%, and in the current financial year (2010-11) it is 9.8%. This reflects the state’s inability to fully tap the scheme’s potential.
In 2008-09, only 22.6% of families with job cards were provided jobs. The corresponding figures are 24% in 2009-10, and 20.7% in 2010-11.
In terms of providing 100 days of guaranteed employment to families that have availed of a job under the scheme, the figure is abysmally low at 4.4% in 2008-09, 6% in 2009-10, and 3% in the current year.
In 2006-07, Orissa provided 57.5 work days to people availing of the scheme. But in the ensuing years, the figures show a downward trend. In 2007-08, it was 37 days, 36 days in 2008-09, 40 days in 2009-10, and 37 days in 2010-11.
Comparison with other states
In an inter-state comparison for 2009-10, Rajasthan provided 74% of eligible families with work, against the total number of families given job cards; Andhra Pradesh provided work to 52.6% of families; Orissa provided work to only 24% of eligible families. In the same year, Rajasthan provided 100 days of employment to 23% of families engaged in work; for Andhra Pradesh the figure is 22.7%. Orissa provided only 6%. In terms of the number of person-days provided to families that worked under the scheme last year, 2009-10, Rajasthan provided 69 days and Andhra Pradesh 66 days. That same year, Orissa provided an average of only 40 days.
Although Orissa has fulfilled the legal obligation of providing work to at least one-third of women, it lags behind other states in bringing more women under the MGNREGS. For example, in 2009-10, in Rajasthan, 67% of person-days were taken by women; in Andhra Pradesh, 58%; in Orissa the figure was only 36%.
Distress migration on the rise
The recent Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report reveals that despite the MGNREGS, Orissa witnessed a 116% increase in rural migration.
Despite the fact that migrant labourers work in inhuman conditions in other states and face various forms of exploitation (economic, physical, mental and sexual), Orissa’s failure to establish the MGNREGS as a credible and sustainable source of livelihood leaves people with no option but to seek employment elsewhere.
There is large-scale distress migration from the state’s western districts of Balangir, Nuapada and Kalahandi to brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu owing to lack of employment in the source areas. From Balangir alone, 1.5 lakh out of 13 lakh people migrated to other states in 2009, according to data from MIRC (Migration Information and Resource Centre), a research agency studying migration issues. Family and individual migration from southern districts like Koraput and Rayagada is also on the rise. Umi Daniel, an expert on migration, pegs Orissa’s rural migrant population at 20 lakh people per year.
The state’s performance in providing employment to only a fifth of eligible families is defended by officials who claim there is not enough demand for jobs by the people. Such naïve claims only point to the failure of the state to make the scheme demand-driven. Ashwani Kumar, member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), observed during his visit to Orissa in February 2010: “The myth of lack of demand for NREGS work in Orissa has become excruciatingly complicated to justify. And it certainly needs demystification because in a state where hunger and distress migration, forced by notorious labour contractors (sardars), are endemic, especially in Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput (KBK), the demand for NREGS work especially from BPL families should logically and naturally exist or must be existing!”
Delayed payments damage scheme’s prospects
Official data suggests that out of Rs 421 crore payments made towards the wages of unskilled workers under the scheme in the ongoing financial year (till October 12, 2010), only Rs 44.4 crore reached workers after the due period of 15 days. In other words, there was a delay in wage disbursements in only 10.5% of cases. The ground reality in several districts contradicts this claim. Official figures for Balangir district suggest that 22% of wages paid were delayed. Jatin Patra, a local social activist, says that in almost all cases a delay of four months is reported. In one instance, in Juba village, a panchayat of Belpada block, people did not receive payment for over six months. In Nuapada district, delayed wage payments, according to the official data, amount to 6.6%. According to Ratnamani Agasti, who works in the district, for tank work in Budhikamna panchayat workers received payment after two months. He adds that in most cases delayed payments is the norm though lately the district administration has been expediting payments after media reports of heavy migration from the district. Similarly, in Koraput district, delays in wage payments are officially 8.3%. However, Bidyut Mohanty, a social activist working in Lamptaput, Nandpur and Bandugaon blocks, says that delayed payments are common in Koraput district. Further discussions with these activists reveal that workers are not given payment slips (slips carrying information on wages paid to workers that are given to them when the wages are deposited in the account), and dates on muster rolls are manipulated to hide delayed payments.
Poor grievance redressal mechanism
The state’s grievance redressal system under the MGNREGA is in complete disarray. Workers’ complaints lie unattended for months by officials responsible at the block, district and state levels. A visiting delegation of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), in November 2007 submitted 20 complaints to the commissioner-cum-secretary of the state’s panchayati raj department; they are yet to be heard.
Civil society organisatons have conducted several social audits, and grievances and lacunae have been brought to the notice of the administration with no appropriate follow-up. This inaction not only discourages CSOs in their efforts to oversee the scheme’s implementation, it denies justice to the people.
Section 25 of the Act provides for a penalty of up to Rs 1,000 on the implementing official, in the event of a violation of provisions under the law. In none of the cases of violation by the authorities, however, has the government invoked this clause.
MGNREGA, starvation and poverty
On February 24, 2010, the national edition of The Hindustan Times reported the occurrence of 50 chronic-hunger-related deaths in the last two years in Orissa’s Balangir district. Indeed, several such reports have appeared in the media in the past 15 years.
Though it is difficult to come up with an exact correlation between the impact of the MGNREGS on poverty levels in Orissa, and its role in addressing the issue of starvation deaths, the above data on implementation and delivery of the scheme in the state should offer some clues.
The MGNREGS has performed poorly in delivering entitlements to poor workers, compared to states like Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. As Ashwani Kumar observes: “Though the state government is clearly aware of what it calls ‘eventual starvation’ (refer to letter of chief secretary dated 5/11/2003), state government official reports have routinely denied many cases of ‘alleged starvation deaths’ that have been reported from the KBK region and also from Keonjhar district in the recent past… Had the NREGA been implemented in right earnest, the Orissa government would not have earned the ire of the right to food activists!”
Political will lacking
One programme that substantially contributed to the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party’s third victory in the May 2009 Orissa state assembly elections was the offer of rice at Rs 2 per kilo for all families covered under BPL survey 1997 (both APL and BPL families in the KBK region, and for BPL category people only in the rest of Orissa). Personal interest taken by the chief minister and other ministers ensured the effective delivery of rice to beneficiaries, making this a popular and extremely successful scheme. A similar spirit has not been displayed in the execution of the MGNREGA, though its implementation had equal potential for effecting electoral victory. Political analysts believe there was fear in the ruling BJD that the Congress Party would cash in on any success the MGNREGS might have in the state, as this was the UPA’s flagship programme. This apparently prevented the ruling party from fully supporting the scheme from the start; the government continues with it only under pressure from the Centre. Lack of political will is therefore one of the main reasons for unsuccessful implementation of the MGNREGS in Orissa.
Not all is unwell…
On rare occasions, due to the intervention of civil society organisations, the MGNREGS has done well. In Tentulimunda village in Belpada block, Balangir district, about 25 migrant families got work under the scheme and remained in their village. Similarly, around 35 families opted to work under the MGNREGS in Badbanki village, Tureikala block, of the same district, instead of migrating. Several children who used to move with their parents also stayed behind and continued their studies. People like Ugrasen Gaud of Badbanki village have made capital investments from income generated through the MGNREGS. After completing 100 days of work, in 2009-10, he received wages to the tune of Rs 15,000. From the money he bought gold ornaments for his daughter’s marriage and some bullocks for the fields. About 17 families in Badbanki have completed 100 days of work.
Room for improvement
Although it is now over five years since the MGNREGS became operational in India, the people of Orissa have lost faith in the scheme because of several lapses at the policy and implementation levels. The state has to devise appropriate action to reinstate the people’s faith and take the scheme forward.
The first step would be to address the issue of delayed payments. Experimentation in involving new technology for payments through smart cards (branchless banking pilot scheme), in Ganjam district, has been promising.
In migration-prone areas, the district administration should take special care to start work before the migration season, and continue during the lean agricultural season; also, to make timely payments. This would prevent a lot of people from leaving the state in search of work.
Orissa should provide an unemployment allowance to job-seekers in the event of delays in giving out work, charge officials responsible for causing the delays and, of course, compensate workers under the Payment of Wages Act 1936 in case of delayed payments. It should not hesitate to invoke Section 25 of the Act and penalise errant implementers. Such measures would discourage people from taking the law for granted.
Ultimately what is needed is the political and administrative will to implement the scheme according to the provisions of law. In the absence of this vital element, the MGNREGS could meet the same fate as other government schemes that do well on paper but falter on the ground.