Posted by: Vikram | February 14, 2009

How should initiatives like the NREGA be evaluated ?

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.


  1. Hey wish you have a lot of fun today, a very Happy valentine’s day to all of us, this day will come to symbolise a day for Individual Liberty and Equality now ….

    Will get back to read fully and comment on this post .. it is an interesting post!

  2. Why do we need such an act in Punjab mostly we rely on ‘imported’ labour? In fact ever since this act came in to place labour prices here have only gone up.

    And why do you think that is ?

    Punjab should make maximum use of this act to activate the social and anti-corruption benefits it brings, but yes the physical/economic benefits are not going to be a factor there.

  3. Hi Vikram, this is an extremely interesting post. Although I’ve read a decent amount about the NREGA in various newspapers, I still don’t really have a handle on the stuff. However, your post is quite enlightening.

    Could you a similar, perhaps more-detailed post on the RTI Act? I remember watching a video in which a former IAS officer presented the basic framework and mechanism of the Act, but my memory has faded, and I’d like to learn more about it.

    Welcome, Navaneethan. Thanks. I will do an RTI post soon, there is some academic literature about it already. In the meantime, this article (linked) talks about the positive change the act has brought. There are others that talk about what it has not managed to do.

  4. Hi,I like your blog much and the facts and logical presentation is really good.

    Thanks Yayaver and welcome. Feel free to contribute your own ideas.

  5. Hi Vikram,

    NREGA is an attempt to place money in the hands of the poorest in rural areas as consideration for some work done. Classical Keynesian economics at work in a limited sense though.

    Laudable objectives.

    Let me not slip into a wailing exercise on corruption and focus on the initiative. State specific differences would be inevitable due to various factors.

    At the individual level, this is work promised for a certain number of days and wages paid for that. The work would be to build rural infrastructure or say just breaking stones.

    A note on ground level conditions. The rural areas have been ignored for so long and what we see is degradation in all aspects of life and ruthless exploitation. Generations have lived like this and the current generation is losing traditional skills and is unable to survive in the current environment.

    The impact will be seen only if
    – Such initiatives last for longer periods
    – Integrated programmes for education and skill development

    There will be many leakages and cynics but a sustained programme over ten – fifteen years coupled with investments in agriculture, education and healthcare can make serious beneficial impact.

    Unfortunately, NREGA could become a target of politics and the new government may not see the rationale in continuing it.

    The end result would be an experiment cut short and dreams meeting an abrupt end.

  6. I liked Mavin’s positive take on this … I had heard of how people dead or non existent are also on their payroll and stuff like that, but I also feel it should be continued, it is needed. No doubt.

  7. The NREGA is the main part of my PhD thesis so I have spent a lot of time studying it – especially in UP. I would say that it marks a strong discontinuity from earlier govt programmes in that it recognises that Indian citizens have the right to work whereas earlier programmes were just in the form of patronage doled out by the state to the poor. There is also no fixed limit of expenditure on the NREGA, theoretically everyone is entitled to get employment for 180 days in the year. This is a big step forward.

    The only disagreement I have with your post is the claim that in the “In contrast to the usual interpretation of democracy in the west; with individual freedom and absence of government interference” – this is not true of European social democracy where the struggle for the vote was very much fought by the working class movement and accompanied certain welfare entitlements from the state as part of the democratisation process. Even in the UK, the health service and education sector are largely state-run and people see this as a right not a privelege that the state must give them.

    Welcome Conrad, yes the NREGA is a big step forward. As far as I know, the earlier programs were not the results of grass-roots movements, perhaps this explains the discontinuity.

    My view of western democracy is probably more influenced by the version prevalent in the US, which is centred more on individual rights and limits on state interference. But yes, democracy in Europe is of a different nature, as you have rightly pointed out.

  8. A very thought provoking article. I have read several articles on the corruption in NREGA but I guess we should be happy that the govt. is taking an effort to weed out corrupt officials.NREGA is an ambitious project, I only hope the next govt. has the will to continue it.
    IF the Cong. ever wins NREGA would be a good reason for that.
    I’d like to add I like most of the articles on your blog. You have a very balanced approach.

    Thank you and welcome. Yes NREGA is one of the very few pro-poor steps the Union Government has taken in recent decades.

  9. thanx 4 all da info,but i a am still trying to comprehend the philosphy and populism attached to mnrega……..

  10. Hello,
    I am pursuing my PhD in the same sector , just that my topic revolves around technology application and its benefit to the end user.

    Article was great . If you can throw some light on how technology aspect of the MGNREGA can be studied?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: