Despite its seminal success in beginning a process of addressing issues of poverty, starvation and empowering the poor, the MGNREGA needed a general election to breathe life into it. However, the disproportionate influence of the middle class on social sector policy has led to the same set of pre-election prejudices resurfacing.
“What use is the MGNREGA to the economy at large?” asks the businessman, one eye fixed apprehensively on the share market. Meanwhile, the policy maker “crunches figures” to see whether the 8 ½ can become nine or 10 this year, and sundry young people aspire to pass “CAT” to settle abroad?
We have even forgotten how rural markets in India survived the global economic downturn. In Rajasthan, even cynical politicians and administrators admit that the drought of 2009 passed off without huge rural unrest due to MGNREGA. We have become so short-sighted that we think that anything we do not immediately and directly benefit from must be a waste.
It is important to address the three biggest issues raised to discredit the act — human resources, corruption, and productive assets.
MGNREGA has given people, the largest economic resource in our country, some amount of work, and plenty of dignity. In state after state, workers have testified that guaranteed employment has enabled them to fight many battles including a system of oppression where they have no choice but to acquiesce to forced labour, indebtedness and the indignity of having to beg for survival. The unemployed are becoming workers, and workers are raising issues of citizenship.
There is no doubt that corruption threatens and undermines the MGNREGA, but it is being fought with courage and determination by some of the most disadvantaged people in our country. In fact, it has given birth to more anti-corruption activists than any other programme in India. In guaranteeing provisions for transparency and accountability, it has empowered the ordinary worker to question and demand answers from the local power structure. Our battles against corruption in the patently wasteful Commonwealth Games could greatly benefit by learning from the anti-corruption struggles of MGNREGA workers. We might then figure out how to fight the corruption that permeates every part of our political and administrative structure.
And what about assets? The popular image of MGNREGA is of millions of people across the country busy digging holes and filling them up. Several-thousand water harvesting structures have been built in the most eco friendly manner possible, rural roads have connected some of the poorest, most inaccessible hamlets, millions of dalits, land allottees and BPL families have converted wasteland into productive plots through MGNREGA work.
Without meaningful evaluation of the utility of the assets created, policy makers make assertions about useless work. If it benefits the rich, an asset is called infrastructure. If it is of use to the poor, it is the dole. Undoubtedly,
all of this could have been done better, more efficiently, with better planning and implementation. If only the policy makers and the implementation agencies had carried out this mandate, including the initiation of a bottom-up effort to appropriately expand the category of permissible works.
Why can’t the fantastically gifted folk artists and singers become music tutors for a hundred days a year at primary schools in their area instead of digging sand in the desert?
Can the differently-abled not be encouraged to do work appropriate to their abilities, as long as they engage in “productive employment at minimum wages”?
Can parts of the country with a dearth of public land, not be allowed to design and evolve their own set of appropriate works?
The truth is that the failures of the MGNREGA are the handiwork of the powerful elite and an entrenched self-serving bureaucracy. Workers are paying the price and landmark legislation is being undermined through the failure of policy makers and administrators to do their job. Finally the country will pay the price in fundamental, basic ways.