MGNREGA More hype than jobs

By Onkar Singh

ARGUABLY a path breaking legislation, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has attracted both praise and criticism in equal measures. It has been praised generously because it guarantees 100 days job in a year to all those men and women in rural India who are willing to work, augments income and thereby improves livelihood of families living at the margin, reduces unemployment, increases consumption level and helps build durable assets in rural areas by the locals themselves.
However, criticism of the scheme has been equally scathing. The scheme has been criticized inter alia on account of inordinate delay in the issuance of job cards, assigning much less days of work than guaranteed under the Act, non-payment or delay in payment of wages, bungling in public spendings and substandard nature of work completed under the scheme.
How far has MGNREGA faired in Jammu and Kashmir where the scheme was launched in the year 2006? A survey to that effect was conducted recently in Nowshera village of Basohli tehsil that forms a part of the hilly terrain of Kathua district. The scheme in this village became operative in the year 2009-10 whereby focus of the work was water conservation, drought proofing, irrigation canal works, and renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, flood control and rural connectivity.
A stratified random sample of 31 job card holding households was selected across caste groups and mohallas of the village that houses a total of 247 families for a fair representation of population. Significantly, findings of the study were revealing. Job guarantee is the hallmark of the scheme. However, between 2009-10 and 2010-11, the scheme generated only 892 job days for 31 job card holders as against an estimated 5400 job days had all these workers been provided with 100 days of work each year. It therefore amounted to generation of just 14.4 job days per household per annum as against the promised 100 days! In other words, the much publicized job guarantee scheme could generate in Nowshera only 1/7th of the total jobs against what its policy statement proclaims.
Equally revealing was discrimination in the allotment of job days across income groups. The sample households had an average income of Rs. 2733 per month. There were as many as 26 households (84%) however whose monthly income (Rs.2954) was more than the average figure. The remaining 5 households had a monthly income much below the average; it was Rs. 1581 only. Significantly, while each job card holder in the former group got work for 16 days a year, the corresponding figure for the latter group was 10.5 days only; indicating thereby that implementation of the scheme in Nowshera was not favourable to, if not biased against, the economically more backward population.
Significantly, this discrimination against the poor gets magnified if one relates it with data on land ownership. In the village, as many as 60% job card holders among the lower income group are landless. The corresponding figure for the greater than average income group is 11.5% only. This implies that the economic group which has little job guarantee has also little food security in the form of agricultural land to bank upon for survival; a state of double deprivation to cope with.
Our queries however revealed that more than 87% MGNREGA job card holders in the village were satisfied with the scheme. Why? Two main reasons were given by the respondents; one was nearness of work place. On an average, the site of work was half a kilometer away, which implied that workers could easily reach there on foot. The other reason was payment on regular basis. All payments to the workers were made either within a fortnight or a month. These were also the reasons as to why an overwhelming majority (90%) stated that MGNREGA jobs were better than other jobs. This implies that unskilled rural poor prefer work that is nearer their home and is paid on regular basis.
Popularity of the scheme notwithstanding, the fact remains however that the scheme failed in providing the promised 100 days of work to a household in a year. And since job creation is associated with work, one can safely assume that no worthwhile development projects were completed in the village during 2009-11. That amounted to a betrayal of both the place and its people by the much hyped job scheme; an example of a good policy gone bad. Apparently, the scheme badly needs a revamp in its planning as well as execution at the grass roots both in letter and spirit.
Infusion of substance is what MGNREGA requires in the region. Hype has created only false hope among the hapless country folk.
The writer teaches Geography at the GDC, Kathua