Sunday 23 August marked the third anniversary of the passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Parliament.
Enacted after a successful struggle for an employment guarantee legislation, this Act was a partial victory towards a full-fledged right to employment. The Act became operational in February 2006, starting with 200 districts and, within two-and-a-half years, has been extended to rest of the country. Two-and-a-half years is a short period to evaluate the impact of this important legislation, but NREGA is bringing about a silent revolution in rural areas.
A legislation of this nature is bound to have repercussions at different levels, right from altering the socio-economic conditions of the affected districts to altering the social dynamics, which are very heavily weighed against the disadvantaged and the poor.
Although well-intentioned, the Act has seen limited support from the states and the Centre in implementation. Arguments and excuses have been manufactured to make it as toothless as possible. Despite this, it has become a rallying point for smaller struggles on the ground as well as in public policy arenas to highlight the success of a democratic state in ensuring the right to well-being for its members.
Much of NREGA’s success is due to a vigilant group of civil society actors who have contributed to the Act becoming a role model for public service delivery in rural areas. In a very small number of cases, the administration has responded with equal enthusiasm. However, the murder of Lalit Mehta, an NREGA activist, and self-immolation of another activist Tapas Soren, are a grim reminder of the challenges of making this Act work.
The success of NREGA need not be measured on the singular parameter of employment generation, even though its record is far better than of its predecessors. As of now, 25 million households have benefited from 857 million of person days employment generated. Moreover, this Act has become a role model for innovation in many areas of public service delivery. This has implications for the important debate regarding public service provisioning in rural areas.
Starting from financial inclusion and social security provisioning for informal sector workers to identification of the poor, this programme seems to have done much better than most of the policies exclusively designed for the purpose.
Take the example of financial inclusion. As of date, 27.1 million new bank accounts have been opened in the rural areas with zero balance requirements for wage payments under NREGA. Almost 80-90% of these are for households that have been included in the financial network for the first time. This is an achievement—financial inclusion was not a stated objective of the programme.
Even in terms of participation of the marginalized sections in the number of workdays created, more than 50% (29.4% scheduled castes, or SCs, and 24.1% scheduled tribes, or STs) of total person days of employment generated have gone to SC and ST households.
Similarly, as against the stated objective of one-third of women participation in total person days generated, the actual numbers have been close to 50%. An expected spillover has also been the rise in wages in almost all states since the initiation of the programme. According to the monthly wage figures from labour bureau, wages of unskilled labourers have increased between March 2006 and March 2008 in nominal terms by 7.4% for males and 7.9% for females. It would be naive to attribute all the increase to NREGA, but it will be equally foolish to ignore the role of this programme.
So, what has been done differently in NREGA that has ensured better targeting? Unlike other programmes which have been made toothless by anchoring them to below poverty line (BPL) cards, NREGA is a self-targeting programme. It is no wonder that the distribution of beneficiaries by social groups is almost similar to the distribution of poor obtained from the NSSO consumption surveys. Evidently, the self-targeting inherent in NREGA has a better score in targeting the poor than the officially conducted but flawed identification of BPL households. In fact, the self-selection nature of NREGA has persuaded the finance ministry to classify workers in the programme as poor, for inclusion in the Janashree Bima Yojana. Similarly, the case of extension of Rashtriya Swasthaya Yojana to the NREGA workers.
Although a programme of this magnitude will take time to be of any relevance in changing the landscape of rural India, initial reports of evaluation studies by various institutions and individuals has documented the processes of revival and resurgence largely driven by NREGA as an axis of struggle by the rural poor. It has neither been claimed nor was envisaged that NREGA is the key to successful rejuvenation of rural areas. This requires many such efforts particularly towards ensuring the broken linkages of the growth process to include the rural areas as engines of growth. Nonetheless, it does offer an opportunity for the rural poor to stake claim to the fruits of the growth. Moreover, NREGA success stories provide opportunities for mainstreaming and legitimizing the struggle for other social security legislation.
NREGA success is as much a hope for civil society activists fighting for the rights of the poor as it is a critique of the developmentalist state in case it fails to deliver.
To read all of Himanshu’s earlier columns, go to www.livemint.com/farmtruths
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org