By Erin Bryk
In his remarks on the 2016-17 budget, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Our focus is on the villages, poor, farmers, women, and the youth. The budget has plans for ambitious schemes to bring in a qualitative change in their lives.” But based on India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’s (MGNREGA) continued lack of success, it is clear that Modi’s government is not living up to the hallmark of his premiership. Although Parliament has allocated additional funds to the scheme for the upcoming year, it is unclear what effect—if any—it might have, because Modi’s bias against the program could prevent the government from making any meaningful structural changes. However, if Modi’s government is to truly improve the lives of India’s rural population, it will need to take a hard look at MGNREGA—even if Modi doesn’t want to.
As Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party became the country’s new prime minister in 2014, a severe anxiety lingered among supporters of MGNREGA. On the campaign trail, Modi outwardly opposed the Congress Party’s flagship act, living up to his slogan of “minimum government, maximum governance.” While the program had already been floundering before he assumed office, within Modi’s first year as prime minister the scheme’s success waned even further, and his government was criticized for inefficiency and corruption—just as the Congress-led government was before it. In 2015, Modi attacked the scheme once again before Parliament, stating that he would keep it barely afloat as a “living monument of [Congress’s] failure.”
MGNREGA became the world’s largest social works project when it was passed in 2005 under the Congress Party’s leadership. With the premise of work as a fundamental human right, the scheme was impeccable on paper—guaranteeing 100 days of employment per household every year to “adult members [who’d] volunteer to do unskilled manual work.” Despite this, the law has been in crisis for over a decade. Typically seen as only an issue of corruption, MGNREGA’s crisis is an issue of flawed implementation and political will. Among many problems, there is a low rate of employment across the country, which has decreased by half since 2009-10. An average of 70 percent of wages are paid with delays, meaning that workers do not receive their wages within the allocated 15-day time frame promised under the act. In addition, the central government often disrupts the flow of funds to states. This disruption severely affects the scheme’s implementation since the central government provides funds for all the workers’ wages and 75 percent of material costs.
The central government has put immense pressure on state and local functionaries, which are primarily responsible for the act’s implementation, to be accountable to the people. Passed shortly after the Right to Information Act, MGNREGA carries the former’s basic premise of transparency as a way to combat corruption. The act’s operational guidelines state that, “Commitment to transparency and accountability runs throughout the NREGA,” which “flows from the Right to Information Act.” The word “transparency” itself is mentioned almost 50 times in the guidelines.
Before someone can work, they must register their household at their local gram panchayat (village council), receive a job card, and submit a work application. Every step of the process—from applying for work to logging one’s hours—requires a tremendous amount of paperwork. As Nayanita Mathur, who spent 18 months observing government officials administering the developmental law in the Himalayas, wrote, “In the implementation of NREGA [we see] vast quantities of paper, and very little else.” Struggling in its labyrinth of documentation, the under-staffed Indian bureaucracy remains severely backlogged with too much kaagaz (paper). But, realistically, what can the central government do to rein in the scheme’s elaborate system of “transparency-making” documents?
Under Modi’s leadership, the central government’s Ministry of Rural Development is notorious for withholding funds to states that do not meet performance goals. Jharkhand, for example, didn’t submit audit reports on time in 2014. It was punished for the remainder of the financial year with budget caps and delayed funding, which had been previously promised by the central government, wrote Ankita Aggarwal of the National Institute of Rural Development. “Given the uncertainty about receiving additional funds in the rest of the financial year, local officials became reluctant to open works,” failing to “provide employment and ensure timely payment of wages.” An ill-advised method to enforce the law, the ministry’s tactic only further stalled the flow of India’s already “flawed state delivery system.”
The various steps of the scheme must be done in succession, which is why the bureaucracy often experiences severe bottlenecks. Instead of punishing states, moving forward, the ministry should truthfully investigate where MGNREGA’s pressure points exist and invest resources to unclog the bottlenecks—whether it be through less paperwork, elongated time frames, or more personnel and space.
Reform is not just a matter of resolving implementation issues—the government must also be willing to acknowledge the scheme’s failures. This June, only weeks after Aggarwal reported that Jharkhand’s MGNREGA implementation was in crisis in Economic & Political Weekly, the Ministry of Rural Development lauded the state’s program as one of the country’s best. In a conversation with the World Policy Journal, Aggarwal criticized the report, stating that that act’s implementation hadn’t actually improved in the two weeks since her report was published. During the ministry’s three-day review of Jharkhand’s scheme, the joint secretary saw well-constructed dobhas (farming ponds) and flourishing mango plantations, but little of the many other programs that are suffering throughout the state.
It is clear that Modi’s government wants to appear to uphold the prime minister’s campaign promise of economic development by barely keeping MGNREGA afloat. However, if it wants to truly do so, the Indian government must recognize and learn from the flaws in MGNREGA’s implementation—rather than giving states funds without any hint of reform.
Although it might not sound particularly interesting, implementation is extraordinarily important. The delivery of this scheme affects the lives of over 100 million Indians throughout the country each year—with women making up 55 percent of the scheme’s workers. A truly innovative act on paper, MGNREGA provides a security net for rural Indians, who might not otherwise have adequate sources of income due to severe droughts or poor crop yields. However, Modi’s government needs to care about how many households are employed and paid on time, rather than showcasing how “transparent” its operations are online. The challenge will be for the government to curb the negative effects of MGNREGA’s transparency imperative while also meeting the scheme’s target performance goals and upholding some standard of accountability in the local and state governments.
Erin Bryk is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Erin Bryk]