In defence of the NREGA

Women on site
Women on site

The work site

Not 'unskilled' at all
Not ‘unskilled’ at all

I am rather annoyed by what I call the ‘affluence discourse’. This is when people who are affluent spout opinions on issues that will affect the lives of people  (often voiceless people) and advocate for curtailing their rights and freedoms, for the sake of some abstraction.

An example of such a discourse would be the tin-pot dictator in Shrek telling his soldiers:

‘In this process many of you may lose your lives, but it is a sacrifice I am willing to make’.

Or the conversation I heard in a gym once, with one middle aged lady furiously pedaling and telling the young man next to her:

‘India needs an iron hand you know. It needs a dictator.’

Of course, to her a dictatorship is an abstraction, something that will not really change the nation much except to bolster the GDP and get us better roads. But for others, who don’t belong to the majority, hold unpopular views, or have an alternate sexual orientation, a dictatorship would be disastrous. But the affluence discourse is willing to make that sacrifice, as it were.

So I have written this blog post on another product of the affluence discourse: the myths and propaganda regarding the NREGA (MGNREGA- Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). There has been an attempt to attack NREGA and classify it as a ‘dole legislation’ ‘muft ki roti’.

I will attempt to refute this.

What basis do I have for writing this?

Well what I write is purely on the basis of my observations over a small period of time in Rajasthan, Ajmer District, and my interactions with women who have been working under the NREGA scheme.

How did I come to be there? I was taken there with a group for 15 lawyers doing a human rights training organized by Ford Foundation and NLSIU, Bangalore. We were shown sites/places in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district by MKSS (Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan).

Some of what I might say, may be true only for Rajasthan, and if so, I would love for those of you in the know to correct me.

 So what is NREGA?

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 is a social/ labour legislation that guarantees 100 days of employment to households in rural areas in one financial year. (It is 150 days in  Rajasthan, thanks to the last Government, though the present Government is contemplating reducing it to 100 again)

Though the work done under it is classified as ‘unskilled labour’, after wielding a shovel for ten minutes under the hot Rajasthan sun, I can assure you that there is nothing unskilled about that work.

The aim of this employment guarantee scheme is to give work to adult members of households as well as to create assets for the rural area, such as bunds, kaccha roads (mud roads), schools, trenches for rainwater harvesting, anicuts etc.

The wage that workers are entitled to under NREGA is Rs. 163  a day, which is under the minimum wage in some states.  However, unless the task for the day is completed, the wage can be deducted.  The work hours are from  6 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, and although the rules in Rajasthan (I was told) provide for task based flexitime, this is not really implemented.

Now, I noticed that in Rajasthan most of the people working under NREGA were women.Men have been migrating for work, or working on stone quarries in Rajasthan. Due to the nature of their employment, and perhaps the harsh weather, a lot of the men die early, leaving young widows who also come and do the NREGA work.

So what this means, in reality, is that women work in Rajasthan from 6 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, doing hard manual labour, in temperatures running from 45-51* Celsius. I lack the hard realism of my libertarian friends, but nothing that I have ever seen in my life, resembles ‘muft ki roti’ less than this does.

Now I am not claiming that there are no implementation problems in NREGA. The biggest problem is regarding information. A lot of the women did not even know that the wage they were entitled to was Rs 163 . Most did not even receive Rs 100, as they were told they did not meet their daily targets, despite working the whole day. There seems to be  a real lack of transparency in the way their work is evaluated.

Another problem is the issue of attendances being marked for those women who are not present (or who do not turn up for work). While this is a big problem, a simple and elegant solution was suggested by Shankar Singh ji (MKSS). This was the formation for permanent groups for 4-5 members of women to do tasks. This would mean that every woman would keep track of who came and did not come for work. Incidents of fraudulent attendance markings would go down, as a result of women not wanting that extra work falling to their share due to fraudulent attendance marking.

Another problem is not allowing for flexi-time based on completing the task. No matter how fast or slow the women work, they have to remain on site from 6 AM to 3 PM. In the summer this can be an inhuman physical strain, and can affect efficiency, since there is no incentive to do a task at a fast pace.

We were shown an NREGA site that was monitored by an NGO, where the working women formed groups. Here their task for the day was clearly laid out, and they had the choice of going home, if they completed the task early. So if their task gets done by 11 AM, there is no need to stick around till 3 PM. The efficiency does not suffer either, since the specified task has to be completed by the end of the day, for full pay. The focus is on the work output and not the hours spent.  This seems to be another elegant solution to a big problem.

Since my post is titled ‘In defence of NREGA’ I will talk of what I found to be the two most important contributions of NREGA.

The first one is a very real empowerment of women. A lot of the women who work on the NREGA sites are widows, and a lot of others are running the household alone, given the migration of the men. Even those who live with their husbands get some real power as a result of gaining income that comes directly to their bank or post office accounts.

Another important contribution is security. With 150 days of work assured to people, there is some solace to the people in times of drought (akal) in Rajasthan, where droughts come often. We were told that the incidents of looting and violence due to droughts has significantly gone down in the State after NREGA has come into place.

So yes, NREGA has implementation problems, but it is an essential and empowering scheme that can change lives for the better, if implemented well. Even with the way it is implemented, that 150 days of work can make a world of difference to the lives of people.

It is imperative then that the scheme is not torpedoed due to political considerations of ‘my-predecessors- came-up-with-it-so- we-must-sabotage-it’, or worse, due to an abstract libertarian principle that shuns social security measures and employment guarantees.

To put it simply. Abstractions can not take precedence over  the lives and well being of real people.





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