Quite a lot has been said about the NREGA Act by various commentators. This post is not about whether the NREGA was morally or practically the best step taken by the UPA government, but rather on discussing more holistic evaluations of the scheme.
Democracy in India, is used as a transformative tool by the masses. In contrast to the usual interpretation of democracy in the west; with individual freedom and absence of government interference, the mass of Indians look forward to ‘positive’ government action to improve their lives. The state is seen as a means of achieving equality in a highly unequal society. Unfortunately India’s elite, who have traditionally been the stewards of large state-run enterprises and initiatives have failed to devise appropriate solutions to the development problems of their country, instead the state has become synonymous with corruption and inefficiency. Ironically this very corruption and inefficiency is now being used by the same elite, as the primary justification to completely dismantle India’s state-run enterprises and also disparage every initiative of the state.
It is in this context, one must interpret the results of the 2004 election. P. Sainath said that the results of the election were a defeat to the neo-liberal policies being pursued by the previous NDA government, which ran its now infamous ‘India Shining’ campaign. And indeed, the NREGA and RTI can be seen as the result of the 2004 verdict. But they mark a departure from the usual bureaucrat/elite driven top down approaches. The NREGA and the RTI were the result of the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) ‘s efforts. They were thus initiatives that came from the bottom up, rather being developed in some IMF office in America. For this, the people of Rajasthan deserve a lot of the credit.
There are some articles, that I have read recently about the ‘effectiveness’ of the NREGA. They talk about the Act’s implementation in the states of Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Orissa. Not surprisingly, the Act has been the most successful in Rajasthan. The state created 77 person-days of work per household, with women doing 68 % of the work. The Act has also succeeded in the states of Assam and Madhya Pradesh, but seems to have failed in most other states, notably relatively advanced states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu. The ostensible objectives of the Act were to create rural employment, build rural infrastructure and check migration to urban areas from drought affected districts. Indeed, in Rajasthan 64 % of the works done were water related.
But the masses expect government intervention not just to bring development and infrastructure but also a social transformation. This is not something that can easily be measured in numbers. But we can try, looking at stats for the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we see a very high involvement of women, 81 and 86 % respectively. These are states known for their greater empowerment of women, and women seemed to have taken this opportunity to assert their roles. In a state like Rajasthan, where women are still not empowered, the scheme seems to have provided a stage for women to come forward and assert themselves. So large interventions from a state that is theoretically pro-women, can become a means for women’s rights groups, NGOs and individual women to initiate change. Unfortunately, by failing to realize the potential of the NREGA, ‘advanced’ states like Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra are missing out on substantial social gains.
Of course what I have said about women applies more broadly to marginalized groups in India, especially the SCs and the STs. There is another way to look at changes brought about the NREGA. The NREGA stresses (atleast on paper) transparency, through social audits and integration with the RTI act. Thus the act provides a platform for grass-root activists, NGOs and indivduals to take on India’s (mostly) people-unfriendly bureaucracy. In many places, corrupt officials have ‘penetrated’ the system at all levels, leaving common people with little hope for redressal, especially if the politicians are themselves not accountable. Jharkhand and Rajasthan have seen significant anti-corruption movements based on NREGA irregularities. Again, by not taking the initiative, wealthier states like Maharashtra and Punjab, are missing out on an important avenue of identifying and removing corrupt officials.
There is no doubt that the NREGA suffers from corruption, so does any initiative of the Indian state from building a road to procuring guns for the army. But schemes like the NREGA, which have built in anti-corruption measures, should also be judged by how well they have allowed common people to take on the corruption that is almost inevitable today. Indeed, middle India should press for NREGA-like measures for all major infrastructure projects initiated by state and Union governments, so that the workers and common public can identify and root out corruption. Corruption is not simply going to disappear, the people need a stage on which to take on corrupt officials.
In the long term, the actual physical work done via NREGA might prove to be trivial in the face of the social and administrative gains it brings, if utilized properly.
Note: Though all comments are welcome, please note that comments on the lines of ‘the state should involve itself in such large initiatives in the first place’ are off-topic and not relevant here. I am assuming that the state does have majority support for such interventions and how then such interventions are to be evaluated.