Mohammed Arkan, 43, gives the spade a 270-degree swing over his head and digs deep into the ground below. He alternates this with picking up the small chunks of mud dug out and stores the chunks on an elevated surface to his right. "It's a relief to get some work," says the thinly built Arkan, an unskilled labourer who is usually unemployed between farming seasons. He, along with two-dozen fellow villagers, is building a dirt road in Ibrahimpur village of Uttar Pradesh's Moradabad district under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
The Rs 125 that Arkan earns each day may not seem much, but he belongs to the India that has been relatively untouched by economic growth in recent years. With no special vocational skills, employment under MGNREGA helps him take care of the basic necessities of his family of nine. "I have been taking up work under the job scheme since it was launched (in 2007)," he says.
About 25 km away in Bhagatpur Mirza village, Totaram, 41, echoes Arkan. He is a marginal farmer who along with his three brothers, works on about three and a half acres of land. They grow wheat and coarse cereals, but that is usually just enough to feed the four families for half the year. "Earlier I would often go to Delhi and Chandigarh in search of work during the non-farming season. Not since MGNREGA," he says.
50 mn number of households employed under MGNREGA in 2011/12.
The landmark Act has given succour to millions of marginal people across the country since it was first notified in 200 districts in February 2006. For the first time, livelihood security to all rural households and 100 days of wage-employment in a financial year for unskilled manual work is guaranteed. It is a demand-driven scheme and unemployment allowance is mandatory if work was not provided. According to the Union Ministry of Rural Development, in 2011/12 more than 50 million households got work under the scheme. "MGNREGA has the potential to be a real game changer for the poor," says Reetika Khera, who teaches economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. This is largely because it provides employment locally, and workers are now able to get the statutory minimum wage.
The execution of the scheme, though, has had its problems. While some states such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have implemented it well, some others such as Uttar Pradesh have lagged behind. As a result, households seeking work got only 43 days of it on an average under the scheme in the last fiscal year. There was rampant corruption with officials and middlemen pocketing a large chunk of the labourers' wages, fudging records of the work done and the number of people employed. To stem corruption, the Union government made it mandatory in 2008 to make wage payments directly into bank accounts. "But for this job scheme, so many poor people would not have been linked to the banking system," says Mohammed Usman, Pradhan of Ibrahimpur panchayat.
The scheme has come under fire for not creating enough tangible community assets. Usman disagrees and points to the kaccha (dirt) road of 2.5 km built between Bhagpura and his village. It also provides for special support to lands owned by scheduled castes or tribes such as providing them irrigation facilities. More than 500 km away in Shehadpur village of Lalitpur district in Uttar Pradesh, Nirbal Ahirwar, 50, has had a new well dug in his field through the scheme. "Having a well dug costs more than Rs 5 lakh. I could not have afforded that by myself," he says.
While more needs to be done to ensure proper execution of the scheme, most agree it has made a telling difference. "MGNREGA may not be as techsavvy an idea as the Unique Identification (UID) programme, but in terms of delivering something to the poor, it beats UID-related initiatives hollow," says Khera. Sebastian P.T.