The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) seeks to boost rural incomes but may hurt children's education in the process, new research suggests. In the study published by the World Bank, Tianshu Li and Sheetal Sekhri evaluate the spillover effects of the employment guarantee scheme on children’s education.

They suggest that the promise of work and wages for low-skill labour starting at the age of 18 may create trade-offs. One such trade-off for children could be between finishing school and entering the labour force. Similarly, in households where parents get MGNREGS employment, children may have to spend more time working at home and not attending school.

Using the government’s District Information System for Education (DISE) data for grades 1 to 8 of 1.13 million schools and data on other district socio-economic characteristics, the authors use the gradual rollout of MGNREGS between 2005 and 2008 to examine the scheme’s effects on school enrollment.

They find enrollment grew at a slower rate in backward districts where MGNREGS was introduced. On average, the results indicate about 9,824 children per district did not attend school due to MGNREGS. Even for enrolled children, the authors find increasing absenteeism which leads to lower passing rates, especially for children in higher classes, and in government schools.

To corroborate their findings, the authors examine survey responses from the government’s National Sample Surveys at the time of rollout of MGNREGS and find a higher likelihood of children working in the most backward districts.

While children’s education may not be the primary goal of MGNREGS, the study suggests its design may have unintentionally increased the opportunity cost of attending school and lowered the returns on schooling, in turn increasing child labour.

Also read: The spillovers of employment guarantee programs on child labour and education

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