Over the last few decades, several legislations like the Right to Education and National Food  Security Act have enriched the constitutional rights of Indian citizens. Through the various  judgements passed by the Supreme Court, Article 21, i.e, Right to Life has stated that Right to Life  isn’t merely survival and includes within it’s gamut ‘right to live with dignity’ as well as ‘right to  livelihood’. This meant “Right to Work” being within the scope of “Right to Life”. To give effect to  this sentiment, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act(NREGA) became a landmark legislation  to enable “Right to Work” as a justifiable right (Libtech, 

2020) . At the inception of the act in 2005, at least 100 days of guaranteed work every year at  minimum wages, to at least one able-bodied person in every household was to be provided  (NREGA, 2005). After obtaining job cards from the local administration, they are assigned to  specific projects, primarily decided by the Gram Sabha. The works predominantly require unskilled  manual labour with no or limited use of machines (Narayanan, S., 2020). The provisions under the  act which amounts to justiciable rights are: the right to work on demand, the right to unemployment  allowance if not provided with work within 15 days, right to a delay compensation if wages are  delayed beyond 15 days, right to minimum wage, essential worksite facilities, to name a  few( Libtech, 2020).  

The purpose behind the adoption of NREGA, as stated by NREGA, 2005 was that due surplus  agricultural labour mounting to disguised unemployment was prevalent in rural India, there was an  urgent need to for productive absorption of under-employed and surplus labour in the rural sector  (NREGA, 2005). However, this sentiment wasn’t new, it has antecedents within India and  programmes across the world. In the 1960s, the Third Five Year Plan referred the need to provide  100 days of employment. In 1972, due to a serious drought, Maharashtra introduced an  Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) which was the inspiration behind NREGA. Social  protection programmes have included workfare programmes, without the guarantee, such as the  Food for Work Programme. In fact, the introduction of NREGA merged the then schemes of  Jawahar Gram Samridhi Yojana, Employment Assurance Scheme and Sampoorna Grameen Rojgar 

Yojana (SGRY) (Narayanan, S., 2020). This essay would explore at some of the historical  underpinnings behind NREGA, its relevance and some of challenges present in todays’s scenario.  

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE  

As elucidated by Jean Dreze, the introduction of Famine Codes in 1880 by the colonial government,  which was the backbone of the famine relief strategy, introduced massive public works.The British  admitted through the Famine Commission Reports, that “the Famines in India, are rather famines of  work than food”. It was recognised the physical availability of food wasn’t the problem, the  problem was in the access to food acutely faced by the poor. The primary objective of this strategy  was to provide employment at subsistence wages, at a reasonable distance from their homes.  Additionally, a ‘gratuitous relief’, in the form of doles and kitchens was to be provided to people  who were unable to work (Dreze, 1990). While anxiety to prevent deaths being the sole objective  behind the British adopting public works, however proper targeting was ensured that only the  people in need would be the beneficiaries.  

The post colonial public works programmes were of three types, i.e, drought driven (Drought Relief  Manuals), supply driven, which is the yearly budgetary allocation by the Ministry of Rural  Development and demand driven, which are the ‘guaranteed employment’ programmes such as the  Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra. Post colonial continuities could be seen in the  Droughts Relief Manuals provided by the post Independent government. As Harsh Mander argues  that this could be seen as a reincarnation of the Colonial Famine Codes, the main objective of the  colonial government was to save lives, at a minimal cost to the colonial exchequer. Ironically,  revised versions of these colonial Famine Codes continue to be the principal guide of the  government in times of natural disaster in Independent India (Mander, H., 2009). Stern “tests” were  conducted in the colonial era to discourage most and only those persons were in drastic need to  report for work (Mander, H., 2009). Evidences suggest that the work conditions were comparable  with the concentration camps in the Holocaust. An improvement could be seen in this regard post  Independence, where much better work conditions were implemented. However, the wages still  remain fixed at subsistence levels, due to the strong agricultural lobby, the government had to fix  the wages at bare minimum and just enough for survival.  

The success of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in Maharashtra, in late 1970s, became a  motivation for the Central government to adopt NREGA at a national level. EGS was officially 

adopted in 1978, the chief architect being Mr V.S.Page. Before the adoption of EGS, a period of  drought crisis had occurred in the late 1972 till early 1974 in Maharashtra. The Central government  intervened due to the severity of the drought and introduced Central Government Crash Scheme for  Rural Employment. The success of providing relief through rural public works during the crisis and  also the rural poor demands, motivated Maharashtra Government to formally institutionalise EGS  (Herring, R., J. & Edwards, H., 1983). The progressive thinking of leaders like Page and Dandekar  in their conceptualisation of rights based approach of public works had genuine concern for social  upliftment. To provide gainful employment EGS defined labour intensive works as the ratio of  unskilled labour to skilled labour and material costs to be 60:40 (Bagchee, A., 2005). Despite some  limitations, the far-reaching impact was of greater participation of women in labour force, equal  wages for both men and women, security guarantee at work sites, safer environments for women to  work, to name a few. The success was so widely appreciated that government officials from other  states were sent to these districts to study the functioning of EGS, with an aim to replicate it in other  places as well.  

The Sampoorna Gramin Rojgar Yojana(SGRY), 2001, the predecessor of NREGA had certain  limitations structurally with limited budgetary allocations, and had “operational guidelines” as to  determine the eligible households/individuals. Hence, targeting a few who would benefit under  SGRY which weren’t available for all to benefit and was a rights based approach, which was seen  corrected by the introduction of NREGA.  

RELEVANCE OF NREGA:  

NREGA departs from most of its predecessors in several key respects. NREGA aimed to create  durable assets such as drought-proofing, flood management, and provide empowerment to the poor.  It also aimed to strengthen decentralisation, participatory planning and panchayati raj institutions  (PRIs), and provide transparency and accountability in governance. Along with a demand-driven  approach with a guarantee, it included additional parts meant to strengthen entitlements, ensure  transparency and promote a bottom-up approach (Narayanan, S., 2020). Gram Panchayats were  given an active role. The kind of work was at the discretion of Gram Sabha according to the  developmental priorities of the area. In terms of transparency, programme websites provided real  time data on a large number of parameters associated with implementation. The involvement of the 

civil society and people in social audits, also allowed an important feedback mechanism and  accountability (Narayanan, S., 2020).  

Especially, today, in the midst of a pandemic, precarity of employment in India has been at an all  time high, which has been a concern for a couple years now. On March 26th, 2020, Finance  Minister announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 trillion under Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan  Yojana(PMGKY). Under PMGKY, MNREGA wages was increased to Rs 20, leading to Rs 2000  benefit annually to a worker (Libtech, 2020). However, this claim is misleading due to the fact that  Ministry of Rural Development had already issued an increase in wage rate and was due to the fact  of adjustment of wage rate to the inflation. Due to the unemployment rates being at an all time high  in 2019, according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey data. There is an increased need for  enlargement of NREGA budget, due to it’s high propensity to consume would act as a means to  stimulate demand and help revive the slowdown of the economy (Dreze, 2020).  

Despite many scholars questioning the relevance of NREGA, it’s relevance and impacts have been  well documented in various studies to favour it’s supporters. The importance of NREGA as  elucidated by Sudha Narayanan, in today’s context is primarily due to the reasons such as  

  1. The workfare being a primary element for social protection which provides a safety net for  those who are most vulnerable.  
  2. The answer to the question of whether NREGA has delivered on its promise is that depute  its shortcomings, NREGA has significantly improved the rural sector especially addressing  deprivation.  
  3. The far reaching contribution of NREGA has been in implementation of the rights of rural  workers.  

The impact especially on the women have been manifold. According to the NREGA survey 2008,  the interviews conducted on women from the sample provided insights of the significance of  NREGA and highlighted the ‘transformative’ potential of NREGA on social and economic security  (Nayak,N. & Khera, R., 2009). Many admitted that, if not NREGA, they wouldn’t have looked for  employment outside the agricultural fields and would remain in the confinements of their homes  (Nayak,N. & Khera, R., 2009). The attractiveness which has led to a marginal increase in female 

labour force participation has been of being locally available, regularity and predictability of  working hours because of being a government work, unlikely nature of work conditions being  exploitative and being accepted as “dignified” work and being relatively better paid (Nayak,N. &  Khera, R., 2009).  

Some of the studies, which has been documented in a report by Mehtabul Azam, have recorded far  reaching impacts are:  

  1. Ravi and Englar (2009) found that NREGA significantly increased expenditure on food by 40  percent and non food consumables by 69 percent. They also find that the program improves  the probability of holding saving by 9 percent.  
  2. Liu and Deininger (2010) found significant increase in calorie and protein consumption.  
  3. Pankaj and Tankha (2010) found that women gained significantly due to the fact of becoming  independent wage earners, because of the paid employment opportunity.  

CHALLENGES IN THE IMPLEMENTATION OF NREGA:  

Given the wide literature available of the far reaching impacts of NREGA on rural population,  which gives relevance to the NREGA. It has yet to fully utilise it’s potential due to various  loopholes present in it’s implementation. Some of the challenges elucidated by scholars such as  Dreze and Ankita Aggarwal are delayed payments, low budgetary allocations, flawed financial  institutions, problems with linkages to Aadhar, weak grievance redressal, over dependence on  technology and misappropriation of funds by the government.  

While all these challenges compound to the crisis of the relevance of NREGA and each deserves  special attention. This essay has highlighted one challenge prevalent which is caused due to the  introduction of National Electronic Funds Management System (NeFMS) introduced in 2017.  Through NeFMS wages get transferred directly into the bank accounts of workers. However, they  have been given no scope to challenge violations of their rights either by the state or the centre  (Bedi, N., 2019). The delayed wage payments along with little to no information has exacerbated  the vulnerability of these workers, through which misappropriation of funds become quite easy for  the middlemen. The weak of norms for accountability further worsens the situation. 

Over dependence on technology, denying payments who don’t hold Aadhar cards, as well as  slowness in administration in transferring funds has led to a distressing situation for the workers and  the NeFMS in this regard isn’t a step in the right direction.  

However as seen in the case of Jharkhand, political will, sustained pressure from the public,  accountability and administrative efficiency can help utilise the potential of NREGA. A  collaboration of government with civil society to conduct social audits to understand the efficiency  of the implementation of NREGA would be lessons that all the states can incorporate.  

CONCLUSION  

To summarise, in essence, NREGA is a pertinent legislation which has proved to transform rural  livelihoods, despite the constraints and challenges inherent in the system. The recent announcement  of Tamil Nadu introducing an urban employment scheme like the NREGA only further supports the  essay’s argument of it’s relevance. As seen in the case of Maharashtra, a positive government  intervention can help alleviate poverty and hunger, and have a significant impact overall. The way  forward for the government is to to accept the importance of NREGA, give it due budgetary  allocations along with addressing the challenges as has been highlighted through this essay.  

REFERENCES  

  1. Azam, M.(2012), The Impact of Indian Job Guarantee Scheme on Labor Market Outcomes:  Evidence from a Natural Experiment. IZA Discussion Paper, https://ssrn.com/ abstract=2062747  
  2. Bedi, N.(2019), MGNREGA in a digital trap, Civil Society Online, https://  www.civilsocietyonline.com/rural-reporter/mgnrega-in-digital-trap/  
  3. Mander, H.(2009), Barefoot: Colonial legacy of famine codes, The Hindu, https://  www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Harsh_Mander/Barefoot-Colonial-legacy-of-famine- codes/ article16123444.ece  
  4. http://www.csjpgoa.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/sgry.pdf 
  5. NREGA Bare Act, 2005, https://nrega.nic.in/amendments_2005_2018.pdf  6. Dreze, J.(1990), Famine Prevention in India, pp 19-35. 
  6. Dreze, J.(2020), Budget 2020: Giving NREGA Workers Their Due, The Quint, https://  www.bloombergquint.com/union-budget-2020/budget-2020-giving-nrega-workers-their-due- by jean-dreze  
  7. J. Dreze and R. Khera, 2009, The Battle for Employment Guarantee, Frontline 26(1) – http:// www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2601/stories/20090116260100400.htm  
  8. Narayanan, S(2020), The Continuing Relevance of MGNREGA, The India Forum, https://  www.theindiaforum.in/article/continuing-relevance-mgnrega  
  9. Shankar, S., Gaiha, R. & Jha, R.(2011): Information, Access and Targeting: The National Rural  Employment Guarantee Scheme in India, Oxford Development Studies, pp 69-95  
  10. Herring, R., J. & Edwards, H.(1983), Guaranteeing Employment to the Rural Poor: Social  Functions and Class Interests in the Employment Guarantee Scheme in Western India, World  Development, pp 578-589.  
  11. Bagchee, A(2005), Political and Administrative Realities of Employment Guarantee Scheme,  Economic and Political Weekly.  
  12. Aggarwal, A.(2016), The MGNREGA Crisis: Insights from Jharkhand , Economic and Political  Weekly.  
  13. Libtech India(2020), Length of the Last Mile: Challenges and Hurdles in NREGA wage  payments, pp. 17-114.  
  14. Nayak, N. & Khera, R.(2009), Women Workers and perceptions of the National rural  employment Guarantee act , Economic and Political Weekly. 
Disclaimer

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.


Dolma Rawat

Dolma is a research intern for Center of Policy Research and Governance and is currently pursuing her masters in Development Studies. Her research interests include labour markets, inequality, gender and development, sustainable development and urbanisation.

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