When it was launched in 2006, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was envisaged to boost rural economies by providing the rural poor with 100 days of guaranteed public employment and raising rural wages. But its intended benefits may have eluded those who needed them the most, a new study shows.

The study, authored by Kartik Misra of the University of Massachusetts, shows far from addressing regional inequalities, MGNREGA’s effects have fallen victim to historical inequalities in agricultural land ownership. According to Misra, historical patterns of landownership and the concentration of socio-economic power associated with it, determine how decisions to implement MGNREGA are taken and whether workers are successful in enforcing their legal rights under the program.

In areas where land is concentrated in the hands of relatively few large landowners such as districts central and eastern India, where the legacy of the colonial ‘zamindari’ (landlord) system has persisted, rural wage growth was sluggish after MGNREGA’s launch. In contrast, districts in the southern and western parts of the country, where land is more equitably distributed, saw a sharp rise in rural wages after MGNREGA.

Misra also finds that the number of employment days created under MGNREGA in ‘zamindari’ districts has been lower than that in non-landlord districts of British India. He suggests that large landlords may now be using their political power to subvert the implementation of MGNREGA in order to ensure that workers continue to depend on them for their livelihoods. Finally, he suggests for workers the inequality in landownership adversely impacts their bargaining power when demanding their MGNREGA entitlements.

Also Read: Is India’s Employment Guarantee Program Successfully Challenging Her Historical Inequalities?

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