Home / Opinion / MGNREGA needs a push in Maharashtra

Over the last five years, Maharashtra has experienced two severe droughts. In general, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)has been a saviour when it comes to drought mitigation. It provides wages and earning opportunity, and also creates water structures that have the potential to reduce the adverse impact of the next drought. This has been proven over the years.

Yet, the Devendra Fadnavis government has failed to rise to the occasion; it could not use MGNREGA to tide over the drought during 2015. The scheme’s performance during drought is its defining moment, but for it to perform in a particular year, it has to be performing at a good level in other years.

Now that the Fadnavis government has crossed the halfway mark, let us have a look at MGNREGA’s performance over the last five years across basic indicators.

2012-2013 was a drought year and the uptake of MGNREGA peaked in Maharashtra. Thereafter, it has remained lower in person-days generated—a direct reflection on the expenditure.

The chart shows the number of days that a household could work on the projects provided under MGNREGA. According to the Central Act, each household is entitled to 100 days of work in a financial year, whereas the Maharashtra government, under its own law, can provide for the entire year to a household. Yet, the average has not gone above 60 days of work for a household in a year.

Not spending enough on MGNREGA also means that not enough rural infrastructure could be built. A study done in 2013-2014 of the utility of assets built under MGNREGA, by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (MGNREGA Works And Their Impacts by Ashwini Kulkarni, Krushna Ranaware, Sudha Narayanan, Upasak Das, Economic And Political Weekly, 2015), found that these assets are held to be very useful by farmers in rural areas. State governments do little for rain-fed agriculture, so these productive assets built under MGNREGA become lifelines.

Another important indicator is the spending on agriculture- related works out of the total expenditure on building various types of assets. In Maharashtra, expenses on agriculture and allied works are in the range of 60-75% of the total MGNREGA expenditure by the state government, which is good. Labour wage payment constitutes 68% of the costs. So water- and soil-related works that use local material are being built, which is in tune with the objective of MGNREGA.

This trend is healthy and needs to continue, though it is under threat due to the importance being given to housing and sanitation under the scheme.

The beauty of this employment programme is its demand-based aspect. It is the right of people in rural areas to demand work if they do not have any other opportunity of earning, and it is the responsibility of the government to provide work within 15 days of receiving the demand. But it seems to be defaulting on that responsibility with increasing frequency over the years. And the experience of civil society groups working in rural areas is that demand for work is never quite taken up readily.

As per the Act, payment of wages earned, and its piece rate (rate based on work output and not daily wage; for example, volume of excavation done), has to be made to the labourer within 15 days. Though the amount of delayed payment has been going down over the years, it still reduces people’s confidence in the programme. Moreover, most of these delays can extend to a month or two.

It is also a matter of concern that the average wage rate received by labourers is consistently lower than the stipulated wage rate of that year. This has something to do with the fact that there aren’t enough personnel to get measurements done on time. This adversely affects implementation in two ways. One, when the measurements don’t get done on time, it causes a delay in payment of wages.

Two, measurements may not get done adequately, and that affects the calculation of wages, which affects the amount earned by labourers. Measurements are done by technical personnel hired on contract basis, not permanent employees. They have to visit each site every week and take measurements of the volume of work done by the labourers. This is a large task—and an inadequate number of personnel, leading to measurements not being properly carried out, affects the timeliness and accuracy of payments.

Clearly, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to MGNREGA. Much more needs to be done to get this programme to deliver on its promises. The gram rozgar sevak, the backbone of the entire scheme, who works part-time, living in the same village, does not get paid on time. The technical assistants who make site visits are inadequate in number. The process of planning, which has to prepare works ready to use so that they can be on the shelf, so to speak, when demand arises, falls short. Moreover,the design of almost every structure is based on model estimates rather than being site-based. This affects the quality and financial estimates of projects adversely.

All these problems lead to work not starting on time, payments not being made on time—and also, reluctance on the part of field functionaries to accept demand applications. Since the banking infrastructure in many rural areas is woefully bad, the presence of banking correspondents is absolutely necessary. Though this facility has been in place for quite some time, it is being implemented at a snail’s pace. The state employment guarantee council, which is meant to oversee the functioning of this programme, is yet to be formalized in Maharashtra. Most importantly, there is no way for the labourer’s voice to reach the higher officers since the helpline does not function well.

Ashwini Kulkarni works with Pragati Abhiyan.

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