An Employment Guarantee Act is really a powerful tool for the economic, food and social security of the poor. It has immense potential to not just to stem distress migration, which has been showing an increasing trend over the last decade or so, but, also to regenerate degraded commons and waste land in the rural areas for productive purposes...Used imaginatively, it can help to build assets in the villages, and country side, and gradually change the face of the rural areas."
Thus reads the MNREGA Sameeksha report- an anthology of independent research studies and analysis on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, from 2006-2012. And according to its authors Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, the programme has realised much of its potential in the six years leading up to 2012. The report also points out that MNREGA has provided livelihood and income security, decreased the incidence of poverty, increased food intake, reduced mental depression, positively affected health outcomes, and been successful as a self targeting scheme - as the poorest and most marginalised communities have sought work. In many States, it has decreased gender differential in wages, increased real wages accompanied by an increase in agricultural productivity and growth. This increase in agricultural productivity could be due to the watershed and water harvesting works, as well as the land development work on the fallow private lands of SC, ST and BPL families to make them productive.
However, the grassroots reality presents a picture starkly different from the report's positives and it is clear that much is desired in the state of implementation of this FLAGSHIP Programme. Studies from the most backward districts of Odisha- Rayagada, Kalahandi, Koraput, etc- show that there is rampant corruption in the implementation of the programme. A huge section of the rural youth still migrates to Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other parts of the country to sell their labour, dismissing all notions of employment generation in local economy. The much-talked about multiplier effect does not reflect in the stagnant, or increasing, levels of malnutrition, hunger and illiteracy.
Even as India boasts of an average 8-9% growth in the GDP over the last decade, the majority of the tribal population in these backward districts hardly seem to benefit from such growth. Just as the planning authorities and the Central government keeps pushing for foreign investments and Indian disinvestments, these rural poor are still characterised by anaemic working women, undernourished child labour and enslaved brick-kiln workers. Just whom does this 'all-round' development benefit? The bureaucrats of the region who launder the MNREGA payments for their personal expenditures? The Sarpanch and local powers who cheat the villagers of their rightful 100 days of work? Or a fraudulent CSO whose social audit of the Programme does nothing to alleviate the condition of the oppressed?
The UPA I ushered in several 'pro-people' Acts, that held out a promise of helping the poor recover, and counter their growth in poverty by an actual improvement in quality of life and wellbeing. But, perhaps, these efforts put the fear of God in India, that balances so comfortably on the fragile shoulders of Bharat, and this time, UPA II has belied all promises of welfare and social security. The pro-poor Acts have been reduced to nought through neglect, and apathy.
The proper implementation of the Act no doubt is a way to regenerate the rural economy and it definitely has welfare of the poor at its core. However without the political will to ensure its transparency and accountability, without creating awareness about the Act amongst its intended beneficiaries and without the government's cooperation to weed out vested interests, the Act may be nothing more than promises on a paper. And much like every other policy and scheme, the backward regions will continue to wallow in its poverty until the concerned authorities truly want to ensure the Programme's success.