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Politics over NREGA: Are the proposed changes all wrong?

Politics over NREGA: Are the proposed changes all wrong?
Highlights

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been the subject of some high-voltage debates between two ideologically opposing groups over the last few weeks.

Limiting NREGA to 200 districts is not the ideal way to go about it. However, it will definitely reduce the inclusion and exclusion errors by a significant margin. The supporters are aware that self-selection has largely worked only to the detriment of the beneficiaries, but they do not provide alternative solution

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been the subject of some high-voltage debates between two ideologically opposing groups over the last few weeks. The Rural Development Ministry set the ball rolling by proposing some changes in MGNREGA which, according to them, will make the world’s largest work-guarantee programme less prone to corruption and more conducive to creation of assets. Two of the major changes proposed, which have created a massive uproar, are: 1) altering the labour-material ratio from 60:40 to 51:49 and 2) restricting MGNREGA to only 200 most-backward districts of the country.

Following these proposals, groups of economists and activists have petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to refrain from taking such anti-poor measures. Such acts have invoked counter–responses from a different group of economists and policy analysts who believe the government is right to curb the deleterious impacts of MGNREGA on the Indian economy.

It is never easy to appear objective while throwing your hat in the ring amidst such passionate and polarised arguments and I will make no such pretence either. I will try to change the axis of the discourse. I will talk about three broad underlying themes to which almost all the arguments pertain -- a) corruption, b) principle of self-selection and c) objectives of MGNREGA.

Even the most passionate supporters of MGNREGA cannot deny the rampant corruption that the UPA-designed programme has lent itself to. The argument for continuing with MGNREGA then drifts to attempts being made to curb corruption and the positive results such efforts are showing. Rhetoric is also resorted to by pointing to corruption in diverse government activities ranging from defence acquisitions to telecom licensing. To an extent they are right, but intellectual honesty seems to be suspect the moment many of these same activists oppose Aadhar-linked direct cash transfers which will plug these leakages substantially.

To put the inefficiency of MGNREGA into perspective, Surjit Bhalla points out the leakage in the current structure of MGNREGA to be as high as 48 per cent. The benefits, taking into account the leakage, reach only 39 per cent of the poor out of which 70 per cent is spent on unskilled wage. Thus, according to him, the intended beneficiaries receive only Rs 14 out of every Rs 100 spent in their name. For MGNREGA supporters, the credibility of figures thrown up by people like Surjit Bhalla and Jagdish Bhagwati (who has generously calculated a higher amount of Rs 20 reaching the poor out of Rs 100 spent) are suspect.

Let me therefore turn to a study done by Accountability Initiative (AI), Centre for Policy Research. It points out that in spite of high expenditure under MGNREGA in a state like Karnataka in the Financial Year (FY) 2010-11, the labour demand met was an abysmally low 36 per cent. The demands met in some states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal was indeed above 90 per cent, but the figures of 36 per cent in Karnataka, 50 per cent in Rajasthan, 59 per cent in Bihar could be considered unpardonable.

The study by AI reveals that in FY 2010-11, the four states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and MP, comprising 59 per cent of the total rural BPL population accounted for only 34 per cent of MGNREGA benefits, while Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu comprising 8 per cent of total rural BPL population accounted for 23 per cent of MGNREGA employment. In other words, the poorer states show a high amount of exclusion error and the richer states show high amount of inclusion error. Ergo, the principle of self-selection has not worked.

Certainly, limiting the programme to 200 poorest districts is not the ideal way to go about it; however it will definitely reduce the inclusion and exclusion errors by a significant margin. The supporters of MGNREGA are aware that self-selection has largely worked only to the detriment of the beneficiaries, but they do not provide alternative solution to what the Rural Development Ministry is offering. Status quo is certainly what they implicitly advocate, but it cannot be accepted in light of the facts we have on the table.

The last theme is the differences in objectives of the programme as envisaged by the sparring groups. The first and the only major objective of the supporters of MGNREGA is providing employment to the rural poor. This is also the reason why the wage to material ratio of 60:40 is so sacrosanct to them. The creation of assets is a close second if not an equal objective to employment provision for Narendra Modi government. Therefore, they want to make the wage-to-material more flexible and open to customization by the state governments.

There are two arguments that have been proposed by the supporters of original MGNREGA and both are self-defeating. One, they say that only 27per cent of the resources so far have been employed on materials (13 per cent less than what still can be) so there is no scope of increasing the expenditure of materials at the expense of wage of unskilled labourers.

If that is the case, they should not object to MGNREGA being used in such projects which involve much higher resources on material and skilled labour – thus finally offsetting the lack of expenditure on materials that our experience with MGNREGA has so far shown. The second argument that they have forwarded is that the proposed tweak in the ratio will require another Rs 20,000 crore to fulfil employment demands. They completely forget that while more resources would be required to fulfil the employment demands, a considerable amount of resources will also be released by limiting the programme to 200 districts.

It is high time that our ideologically blinkered activists and economists begin to pay attention to evidences that do not support their contention and at least provide an alternative rather than just protecting an unacceptable status quo and stymieing changes proposed by others. (Newslaundry)

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