The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the government’s flagship scheme to alleviate rural poverty, has been constantly plagued with allegations of corruption. One allegation is that MGNREGS is used by politicians to influence electoral outcomes and new research suggests that this allegation has some basis.

In a study published in World Development, Upasak Das and Diego Mairano find that while there is no evidence to prove that elected politicians use MGNREGS to buy votes directly, the ruling party does award more contracts to a select network of contractors, who in turn fund the election campaign of those politicians.

To show this, the authors use a data set that includes census and MGNREGS implementation data at the single-constituency level for Andhra Pradesh (from 2009 to 2017) across an entire election cycle (2009 to 2014). They supplemented this with interviews of programme beneficiaries, MGNREGS staff and farmers’ representatives. They find that in all the assembly constituencies (ACs) which were ruled by the Indian National Congress (INC) and allies (the ruling coalition), MGNREGS expenditure was significantly higher, especially the spending on materials. On an average, the INC-ruled ACs had 17% higher material expenditure than non-INC-ruled ACs. However, there was no significant difference in wage expenditure. The authors suggest that spending on wages does not change because politicians know that wages reach beneficiaries directly. However, this is not the case for spending on materials. Expenditure on materials increases to appease certain contractors, who then provide funding for the politicians’ election campaigns.

These insights shed light on the patronage networks that exist in India’s rural political economy, and demonstrate how vested interest groups can influence government schemes that are targeted towards the most vulnerable.

Also read: Post-clientelistic initiatives in a patronage democracy: The distributive politics of India’s MGNREGA.

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