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Volume 26 - Issue 01 :: Jan. 03-16, 2009
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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COVER STORY

The battle for employment guarantee

JEAN DREZE AND REETIKA KHERA

The NREGA is making a difference to the lives of the rural poor, slowly but surely.


“THE dream I have for my son is that he should get at least 15 days of casual labour every month,” said an elderly agricultural worker at a public hearing held in Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh three years ago, on the sidelines of the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra, an awareness drive launched as part of the campaign for a national Employment Guarantee Act. His dream was not that his son would earn the minimum wage or become a skilled labourer – he just wanted 15 days of casual work every month. With local wages as low as Rs.25 a day at that time, it is not difficult to imagine the living conditions of a family that survives on 15 days’ earnings.

It may seem that this modest dream has now come true. Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), anyone who is willing to do manual labour at the statutory minimum wage is entitled to being employed on local public works within 15 days, subject to a limit of 100 days a household a year. In reality, however, workers still have to fight at every step for their entitlements under the Act: to get employment, to be paid on time, to earn the minimum wage, to avoid harassment, and so on. This is the “battle for employment guarantee”.

The battle for employment guarantee is also a larger struggle, stretching from remote villages to the national capital, to ensure that the Act is implemented in letter and spirit. At times, alas, the battle has turned violent. Whistle-blowers have been the main target.

BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

IRRIGATION WELLS ARE among the useful assets being created under the NREGA.

On May 14, 2008, Lalit Mehta was brutally murdered as he was about to initiate a social audit of the NREGA in Palamau district in Jharkhand. About a month later, Kameshwar Yadav, an activist of the CPI-ML(Liberation) working on the NREGA and related issues in Giridih district – also in Jharkhand – was killed in circumstances that suggest a link with his political activities. In early July, Tapas Soren immolated himself in Hazaribagh to protest against harassment and corruption in the context of the NREGA (a harrowing video of his last words is available at www.youtube.com).

There have been violent incidents in other States, too, and while most of the deaths reported so far have occurred in Jharkhand, this wave of violence may well spread to other States as the battle intensifies.

However, there is some good news too. Slowly but surely, the Act is making a difference to the lives of the rural poor. In Rajasthan, in the very first year of the NREGA (2006-07), the average rural household worked for as many as 77 days under the programme. This is an unprecedented achievement in the history of social security in India. In most other States, the promise of 100 days of assured employment is still a distant dream but employment generation is nevertheless much higher than under earlier public works programmes. And where employment is available, the NREGA is having an impact: wages are rising, migration is slowing down, productive assets are being created, and the power equations are changing too.


These positive achievements have been lost in the din of critical reports and anti-NREGA propaganda. “Expensive gravy train”, “money guzzler”, “costly joke”, “wonky idea” and “Sonia’s pet scheme” are just a few of the colourful terms that have been used in the corporate media to rubbish the programme. This article’s main purpose is to take a more informed and open-minded look at the NREGA on the ground.

Social background

We begin by taking note of the perceptions of NREGA workers, who have rarely been heard in this noisy debate. This we do on the basis of a field survey conducted in May-June 2008 in six States of North India (see box, “NREGA survey 2008”). These States account for about 40 per cent of India’s population and 62 per cent of NREGA expenditure in 2007-08. The survey involved unannounced visits to 100 randomly selected worksites spread over the six States and interviews with a random sample of about 1,000 workers employed at these worksites.

Most of the NREGA workers belong to the most disadvantaged sections of society, as is fairly obvious from casual observation at almost any worksite. Yet, it is worth mentioning because doubts have been raised about this feature of the programme (the “self-selection” aspect). To illustrate the point, 81 per cent of the sample workers live in a kaccha house, 61 per cent are illiterate, and 72 per cent have no electricity at home (Table 1).

Scheduled Caste (S.C.) and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) families are also joining the NREGA in large numbers. They account for 56 per cent of all workers at the all-India level, according to official data, and for 73 per cent of the workers in our sample. It is hard to think of any other development programme that involves S.C./S.T. communities to this extent, without any reservation or quota. Clearly, the NREGA is a powerful tool of economic redistribution and social equity.

Massive demand for work

Another “obvious” point that bears mention is the fact that there is a massive demand for NREGA work. Among the myths floated some years ago to scuttle the enactment of the NREGA was one according to which there was little demand for this sort of employment. One of India’s leading economists even argued that the NREGA was unnecessary because “poor agricultural workers had an unemployment rate of only 1 per cent” (Business Standard, December 25, 2004). Contrary to this fairy tale, 98 per cent of the sample workers stated that they were ready to work for 100 days in the year – the “upper limit” under the Act (Table 2).

RANJEET KUMAR

As things stand, the NREGA meets a fraction of this demand: only 13 per cent of the respondents had actually secured 100 days of NREGA work in the preceding 12 months. There were, of course, wide inter-State variations in this respect. While the proportion of sample workers who had completed 100 days of work was particularly low in Chhattisgarh (1 per cent), Bihar (2 per cent), Uttar Pradesh (3 per cent) and Jharkhand (7 per cent), it was considerably higher in Madhya Pradesh (17 per cent), and as high as 35 per cent in Rajasthan. This is one aspect, among others, of Rajasthan’s impressive achievements in this field; the contrast between Rajasthan and other States is a recurring theme in this article.



At Nuruddinpur village in Khusrupur block of Patna district in Bihar, NREGA workers build an embankment for flood control and rural connectivity.

The survey does not tell us much about NREGA participation rates in the rural population as a whole. Some information on this, on the basis of official data, is provided in Table 3. A useful indicator here is the “number of days of NREGA employment per rural household” (second row). This varied among the sample States from seven days in Bihar to 68 days in Rajasthan in 2007-08. The all-India average was 16 days, though this may be an overestimate, bearing in mind that there are substantial “leakages” in NREGA expenditure, which are not captured in official data.



Given the unimpressive scale of works so far, the NREGA is bound to have a limited impact. Nevertheless, it is useful to examine its impact where work is available, as it ought to be everywhere under the Act. The field survey throws some light on this since it focusses on a sample of NREGA workers.

Awareness levels

In contrast with earlier employment schemes, the NREGA is a rights-based programme. The rights of NREGA workers include employment on demand, minimum wages, payment within 15 days, and basic worksite facilities, among others. The best guarantee of the realisation of these rights lies in organised demand on the part of well-informed workers. For instance, if workers insist on being paid the minimum wage, depriving them of it will be that much harder. For this to happen, of course, workers have to be aware of their rights.

The survey shows, however, that awareness levels among NREGA workers are still very low. Well into the third year of the NREGA, fewer than half of the sample workers were aware of their entitlement to 100 days of work over the year – the first paragraph of the Act (Table 4). Similarly, barely half of them were aware of the minimum wage or of their right to being paid within 15 days – with even lower awareness levels in the more deprived districts, where the NREGA is needed most.

Low levels of awareness play a major part in the lack of public pressure to make the NREGA work. For instance, while there is a massive latent demand for work, very few workers in our sample had ever made a formal application for work (Table 5). The main reason is that they are not aware of the possibility of applying (not to speak of the application procedure). Instead, they passively wait for work to come their way.


As Table 4 illustrates, awareness levels are much higher in Rajasthan than in the other States. This is both a root and an outcome of the comparative success of the NREGA there. Rajasthan has a long tradition of public mobilisation for employment and wages in the context of drought relief. When the NREGA came into force, it was quickly recognised as a crucial opportunity for the rural poor. Public interest in the Act quickly translated into serious pressure on the State government to act.

The government itself foresaw the political value of the NREGA and took major initiatives, including mass awareness campaigns. In other States, too, many awareness drives have been launched, but in actual fact, government officials have often kept people in the dark to avoid having to face their demands.

We found some evidence that awareness levels were higher in areas where some sort of workers’ organisation had been built, as discussed later. Even otherwise, awareness levels are definitely rising. For instance, the proportion of workers who know the minimum wage – around 50 per cent – does not look so bad when we remember that before the NREGA the very notion of a minimum wage was a mystery to most rural workers.

Year after year, workers are likely to develop a better awareness of their rights and their collective power. This is a key feature of the battle for employment guarantee: time is on the side of the workers. In contrast with the scepticism of many economic advisers, most of the sample workers had a positive view of the NREGA. This was especially the case where employment levels were relatively high.

For instance, more than two-thirds of all sample workers felt that the NREGA was “very important” for them (Table 6); their proportion rose to 80 per cent among households that had worked for at least 60 days in the preceding 12 months. The proportion was also high among disadvantaged groups: for example, it was 83 per cent among widows.

The potential value of the NREGA as a lifeline for the rural poor is also evident from other survey responses. About half of the respondents felt that the NREGA had “brought significant change in their lives”, and 69 per cent said it had helped them avoid hunger. There were also signs of the NREGA having “helped” in other ways, such as avoiding migration (59 per cent), sending children to school (38 per cent), coping with illness (50 per cent), repaying debt (32 per cent), and avoiding demeaning or hazardous work (35 per cent).

Almost all the respondents reported at least one of these positive outcomes (on migration, see box, “Alternative to migration”).

Food and subsistence typically have the first call on NREGA earnings. Many respondents explained how the NREGA had helped them banish hunger or improve their frugal diet. Their earnings contribute to food security in a variety of ways: not only incomes are higher, but cash in hand helps them buy rations in bulk at cheaper rates or get credit from the bania (trader).

The NREGA also seems to play a useful role as a “healthline” for rural households. The majority (57 per cent) of the sample workers had used a part of their wages to buy medicine or treat an illness in the family. For instance, Babli Sopa, a tribal worker from Sirohi district in Rajasthan, used her earnings to buy medicines for her husband, who suffers from tuberculosis; the NREGA also helped her repay the loan she had taken for his treatment. School books and uniforms also ranked high among people’s uses of NREGA earnings.


Some of the respondents had been able to go beyond subsistence expenditure and save or invest a part of their wages. For instance, farmers in Rajasthan often mentioned that they had spent some of their NREGA earnings on seeds, fertilizer or other agricultural inputs. Sita, an 18-year-old girl in Sirohi district, used her wages to buy a sewing machine.

Unique chance for women

In many areas, the NREGA offers a unique employment opportunity for rural women, who rarely get a chance to earn their own income (as opposed to working without wages at home). Only 30 per cent of the sample women had earned any cash income other than their NREGA wages in the preceding three months. And even those who did earn some cash had been working for measly wages in most cases. What is more, in NREGA work women earn the same as men. This impressed many of our respondents, both men and women.

It is also worth noting that a large majority of women workers collect their own wages (79 per cent; see Table 7), and also keep them (68 per cent). Thus, women are not just sent to NREGA worksites to earn money on behalf of male family members; they are individual workers in their own right. For many women, however, participating in NREGA work is a major challenge, for reasons ranging from hostile social norms to the lack of child-care facilities (see box, “What works against women”).

The special value of the NREGA for women often came through in their testimonies. Lungibai (Sirohi district) said she was working outside the house for the first time; her husband allowed her to work because employment was available within the village. Bejni Devi (Araria district, Bihar) is also glad to have a chance to work on an NREGA project. She earns Rs.75 a day, which is less than the minimum wage (Rs.82 a day in Bihar) but much higher than what she earns as an agricultural labourer – as little as Rs.15 a day. Bejni Devi had not earned any income in the preceding three months. “Without the NREGA,” she said, “I would have had to migrate with my four-month-old child.”

Widows and single women were especially appreciative of this opportunity to earn close to their homes. Often, social norms do not permit them to migrate and paid work is hard to find in the vicinity of their homes except possibly for abysmal wages. Takdiri, a Muslim widow who lives in Sitapur district (Uttar Pradesh), said the NREGA had changed her life because it enabled her to earn Rs.100 a day at her doorstep, whereas earlier she worked for Rs.35 a day, when she found any work at all.


The interviews also revealed that for many rural women (especially for single and widowed women), feeding the family was not just an economic burden but also a source of enormous mental strain. In that respect, too, the NREGA makes an important contribution to women’s well-being.

Work with dignity

Among the NREGA’s early achievements is a major reduction in the exploitation of labour in public works. Just three years ago, in similar enquiries, we found that labourers working on schemes such as the National Food For Work Programme (NFFWP) were mercilessly exploited. They worked hard, earned a pittance, and were not paid for weeks or even months. In May 2005, we found that NFFWP workers employed at Padrikala in Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh had been paid as little as Rs.2 to Rs.4 a day, along with 200 grams of rice. One worker (Lal Bahadur) and his wife had earned Rs.48 for 19 days of work.

In this respect, the NREGA is bringing about radical change. For instance, wages today are much closer to the minimum wage, and the minimum wage itself has risen sharply. The average wage earned by NREGA workers in our sample was around Rs.85 a day, compared with about Rs.50 a day, on average, for local agricultural labour. And at half of the sample worksites, all workers were paid the minimum wage (Table 8) – this is a big step forward.

RAGHAV PURI

PROVISION OF SHADE for periods of rest is mandatory under the NREGA

The NREGA is also seen by many rural labourers as an opportunity for dignified employment. The work conditions tend to be better than in the private sector, for example, in terms of hours of work and productivity norms. Only a small minority (10 per cent) of respondents had any complaint of harassment at the worksite (Table 9).

The improvement of work conditions partly reflects the gradual exit of private contractors (see box, “Banned but still there”). Three years ago, contractors ran the show, and labourers – especially women – were at their mercy. Often they had no idea whether, when and how much they would be paid. Under the NREGA, contractors are banned and gram panchayats are the main implementing agencies. The ban is not without loopholes (28 per cent of the sample worksites were managed by contractors), but it has certainly dislodged many contractors, with more on the move. And in our sample, we found that contractor-free worksites were less exploitative than contractor-run worksites. For instance, the incidence of worksite harassment was much lower where contractors were absent (Table 10).

These developments are of special relevance to women. Even the fact that the NREGA is considered “government work” is associated, for many of them, with a certain sort of dignity (especially in areas where social norms prevent them from participating in the labour market). Sometimes, the NREGA also enables labourers to give up undesirable occupations: as noted earlier, about one-third of the respondents said the NREGA had helped them avoid demeaning or hazardous work.

Playing with mud?

The productive value of NREGA works is something of a mystery. Through sheer repetition, an impression has been created that they are mostly useless. One influential commentator (or “opinion-maker”) recently dismissed them as a futile attempt “to play with mud, to create a road that goes from nowhere to nowhere, to dig ditches that will be washed away in the next monsoon” (Hindustan Times, February 14, 2008). This verdict, however, has not been substantiated.

The productive value of NREGA works was not a major focus of our survey. Still, a large majority (83 per cent) of the respondents said the NREGA had led to the creation of useful assets in the villages (Table 11). Similarly, 70 per cent of the sample workers felt that the work being done at the worksite was “very useful”, and another 22 per cent felt that it was “quite useful”. Only 3 per cent considered it “useless” – quite in contrast to the refrain in urban circles.

It may be argued that these responses are self-serving and therefore suspect. However, they are corroborated by the assessments of field investigators: at most of the sample worksites, the survey team felt that the work being done was “very useful” (70 per cent) or “quite useful” (22 per cent). Informal as they are, these observations debunk the myth that NREGA works are useless. It is, in fact, possible that economic returns on NREGA works compare quite favourably with those of many industrial projects.


One of the best examples of productive NREGA works we encountered was the construction of a kaccha road in Kope panchayat in Jharkhand’s Latehar district, where the local people had creatively planned and self-managed the entire project. The road led to a previously inaccessible tribal hamlet.

“If someone falls ill, the existing path was not enough for people to place him on a bicycle and take him to the hospital for medical care,” said Bhukhan Singh.

The construction of the road was combined with the levelling of the adjoining land, so that where there used to be wild bushes there are paddyfields now. An inventive culvert had also been built (to avoid disrupting the natural flow of water), using wood and other local materials instead of the more expensive cement or bricks. The road was concrete proof of local people’s ability to plan valuable NREGA works.

Having said this, the general quality of assets created under the NREGA leaves much to be desired. For instance, kaccha structures were often incomplete when the monsoon arrived; many check dams were left without “dressing”, making them vulnerable to soil erosion; roads did not have an adequate top layer; and the location of many of these assets was often inappropriate. In one extreme case of poor planning (in Gurdah gram panchayat in Sonebhadra district), we found that a large pond had been dug on top of a hill, with little scope for water harvesting.

The productive value of NREGA works could be enhanced further with moderate doses of scientific or technical inputs. For instance, it is possible to build relatively good roads through labour-intensive techniques. But this requires technical inputs of a sort that has not been encouraged in the traditional, contractor-based approach. It is also important to activate the process of participatory planning through gram panchayats and gram sabhas, which is mandatory under the Act but rarely visible in the field.

Ghost of corruption

The survey clearly brings out that where work is available the NREGA has had many positive effects on the quality of life in rural areas. This does not mean that the NREGA is in the pink of health – far from it. In all the sample districts, the provisions of the Act and the guidelines were routinely violated, causing much frustration (if not anger) among NREGA workers.

For instance, the scale of works was inadequate, delays in wage payments were rife, and basic worksite facilities (water, shade, first-aid and child care) were missing in most cases (Table 12). Behind these failures were deep structural problems, including poor flow of funds, staff shortage, flawed record-keeping, and the lack of a grievance redress mechanism, to cite a few.

Just to illustrate the first issue, the haphazard flow of funds has often caused havoc with people’s entitlements. In May 2008, there was no NREGA work anywhere in Sonebhadra district (initially part of our sample), forcing us to select another district for the survey. The same problem occurred in Chainpur block of Palamau district: not only had work come to a standstill, there were also huge arrears in wage payments. The block development officer (BDO) did not expect to be able to start any new works for another six months or so.


The positive impact of the NREGA has also been undermined by rampant corruption (see box, “All not well with the wells”). The chief method of embezzlement is fudging of muster rolls. For instance, in Khendra Khurd, also in Palamau district, we found that 100 out of the 108 names listed in the muster rolls for one particular week were fake. The wages of the fictitious workers had been siphoned off by corrupt officials and middlemen. Had this money been used well, the scale of employment in Khendra Khurd would have been much larger. This is an extreme example, but fudging of muster rolls was observed to varying extents in most of the sample districts (with the notable exception of Rajasthan).

To address this problem, the Central government recently instructed State governments to pay all NREGA wages through banks or post offices. This is, in principle, a good idea. It is an example of the “separation of payment agencies from implementation agencies”, one of the key transparency safeguards. However, the transition to bank payments is being made in an abrupt and careless manner, making matters worse in some cases (see box, “Accounts of corruption”).

For instance, during a follow-up social audit in Deogarh district (Jharkhand), we found that middlemen operated bank accounts in the names of NREGA workers and used them to siphon off funds, apparently in collusion with bank managers. The Central government seems to regard bank payments as a “magic bullet” against corruption but the bullet is in danger of ending up in its own foot.

Is transparency possible?

This is not to say that corruption is an immutable feature of NREGA works. Some States (notably Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh) have made considerable progress towards a transparent and accountable system. And even in the more corrupt States, there is evidence of the possibility of curbing corruption.

For instance, recent social audits initiated in Orissa by the National Institute for Rural Development suggest that leakages in wage payments declined from 66 per cent in 2006-07 to 33 per cent in 2007-08 in the sample areas; the proportion of fake names in muster rolls (the most “blatant” form of corruption) declined from 42 per cent to 7 per cent. Further progress in this direction is possible.

The best weapon against corruption is strict enforcement of the transparency safeguards. These include keeping muster rolls at the worksite, regular maintenance of job cards, payment of wages in public, separation of payment agencies from implementation agencies, formation of vigilance committees, and social audits.


In Rajasthan, these safeguards were taken seriously; for instance, muster rolls were generally available at the worksite and job cards were well maintained (Table 13). And, in line with earlier social audits in Rajasthan, we found little evidence of major fraud, at least in the labour component of the NREGA. In other States, however, transparency safeguards were grossly neglected. For instance, muster rolls were rarely kept at the worksite and job cards were poorly maintained (Table 14).

The main problem is that those who are supposed to implement these safeguards (for example, the panchayat sevak and the BDO) are often part of the nexus of corruption. To make matters worse, the Central government takes the view that the transparency safeguards are “advisory” only and violating them attracts no sanctions. For instance, a panchayat sevak who fails to maintain job cards has nothing to fear.

This situation calls for the creation of a mandatory grievance redress mechanism so that complaints are heard and culprits punished. For instance, rules should be framed to activate Section 25 of the NREGA, which provides for penalties on those who fail to do their duty under the Act. The Central government has been beating around this bush for a long time, without getting anywhere. Is it an accident that there is so much resistance to greater accountability?

Educate, organise...

“It is only after getting organised that we were able to make good use of the NREGA. The [Jagrut Adivasi Dalit] Sangathan fought for this at every step.” In these simple words, Dinesh sums up years of struggle in Pati block of Badwani district in Madhya Pradesh under the banner of the JADS. Initially focussed on land rights, the JADS started organising NREGA workers as soon as the Act came into force. The results are impressive.

Workers’ awareness of their rights is very high in Pati, so is their confidence in their collective strength. They generally make joint applications for work in writing, and many of them are able to secure a full 100 days of NREGA work over the year (Table 15). In November 2006, the JADS won the first-ever payment of unemployment allowances under the NREGA, to hundreds of men and women who had been denied work (see box, “Pati experience”). It has also formed its own vigilance committees to prevent corruption. The experience of the JADS illustrates the power of organised action in enabling workers to secure their entitlements under the Act. The NREGA, in turn, facilitates this organisational work.

One of the field investigators observed: “The NREGA is useful for the Sangathan as well because it has brought a sense of solidarity to all its members.” Thus, the implementation of the NREGA and the empowerment of rural labourers are complementary processes, reinforcing each other.


This experience also gives a sense of the vast possibilities that lie ahead if NREGA workers are able to organise themselves. Aside from helping them get employment and wages, this would also facilitate their active involvement in the entire NREGA process. For instance, informed and empowered workers could give a new life to gram sabhas, vigilance committees and social audits.

Workers’ organisations could also add new dimensions to the entire programme, for instance, by linking employment guarantee with social security schemes. Even demanding the provision of child-care facilities at NREGA worksites could be a major action point, with the potential to make a wider impact on workers’ perceptions of what is due to them at the workplace. Last but not least, greater bargaining power would help rural workers in other domains, including the realisation of other social and economic rights (for example, the right to food or the right to education).

In the course of our survey and related activities (such as social audits), we came across other organisations that had done impressive work with NREGA workers, such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the All India Agricultural Labourers’ Association (AIALA). The reach of these organisations is still limited. Indeed, except in Pati block, it is only on rare occasions that we met NREGA workers who had been helped by a local organisation in any way to secure their entitlements. The process of organisation-building has been much slower so far than was anticipated three years ago. But this state of affairs is not immutable.

While the NREGA has done quite well in both Pati block and in Rajasthan, there is an instructive contrast between the two approaches. In Pati, this achievement is based primarily on popular mobilisation and organisational work. The government acted mainly in response to people’s demands rather than on its own initiative. In Rajasthan, on the other hand, the government actively tried to make the NREGA work as soon as the Act came into force (see box, “Rajasthan way ahead”).


This is not to say that Rajasthan’s achievements are unrelated to popular mobilisation. The right-to-information movement, for one, has strong roots in Rajasthan and made its mark on the NREGA at every step. It also had an important influence on State priorities. But the decisive factor, ultimately, was a strong political backing for the NREGA at the top, across party lines.

It is worth reflecting on what would happen if every block in the country had an active workers’ organisation (as in Pati) and every State government had a strong commitment to the NREGA (as in Rajasthan). This may seem like a pipe dream, but as noted earlier, time is on the side of this process.

With the next Lok Sabha elections approaching, political parties are vying to take credit for the NREGA and proclaim their commitment to it; while some of this is just posturing, political support for the NREGA is likely to consolidate over time. Similarly, the collective strength of NREGA workers is likely to grow in the future – there are signs of it already. If adequate energy is invested in this process, the battle for employment guarantee may just be won.



(In collaboration with survey coordinators: Anish Vanaik, Ashish Ranjan, Kamayani Swami, Kartika Bhatia, Karuna Muthiah, Nandini Nayak, Navjyoti, Noor Zaheer, Siddhartha, Sunil Kumar, Zia Khan.)



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