Scheme already shows promise in helping villages go from being water-scarce to water-sufficient, as per DTE report
This focus, the rural development ministry noted in a release in 2019, meant 75% of the activities in the list of those permissible under MGNREGA “directly improve water security and water conservation efforts”.
To mark the World Water Day, the Union government announced a water conservation campaign, Catch The Rain. Given India receives more annual precipitation—though temporally and geographically unevenly distributed—than its peak requirement, many parts of the country suffering water insecurity for the larger part of the year is evidence of how inadequate the country’s water storage and management capacity is. While the government—primarily the states, given water is a state subject—will focus on water conservation efforts under Catch The Rain (there is also talk of geotagging existing water-bodies for real-time monitoring), it needs to look at MGNREGA’s role in developing water security over the past 15 years and build on this.
Down To Earth (DTE), the magazine brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment, reports that the programme, primarily seen as an unemployment support scheme for rural India, has been a change-driver in terms of bolstering water sufficiency and management of precipitation in many villages. The Act had been amended in 2014 to ensure that at least 60% of the spending was on projects that benefit agriculture and allied activities—though, even before, such projects are estimated to have constituted more than half of all such projects.
This focus, the rural development ministry noted in a release in 2019, meant 75% of the activities in the list of those permissible under MGNREGA “directly improve water security and water conservation efforts”. Over the past 15 years, nearly 30 million water-conservation related works—or 50/per Indian village—have been executed under the programme, creating a water conservation potential of close to 29,000 million cubic metres.
That is 17% of the capacity of the 123 reservoirs that are monitored for storage by the Central Village Commission. The testimony from the 16 villages covered in the DTE report seems to suggest that the programme has contributed not just as a social security scheme, but also, by increasing access to water and supporting farm-related livelihoods, as a climate-resilience and livelihood support programme. While Bandlapalli in Ananthapuramu district of Andhra Pradesh—the first village in India where MGNREGA was implemented—saw recurring drought and large-scale migration in 2006, by 2021, it had 900-plus water harvesting structures.
Thanks to this, it remained unscathed in 2018-19, when the district reported its lowest rainfall in a century. Similarly, Barmani in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district, DTE reports, was virtually abandoned because of distress-migration in 2006, but by 2021, it had 7 big ponds and 39 wells that had perennial water availability. While MGNREGA helped Pookkottukavu in Kerala go from being a water-scarce village to seeing dying water streams getting revived, residents of Himmatpura in Uttar Pradesh saw incomes rise by 10 times with dependence on rains for agriculture reduced.
While the MGNREGA saw a sharp fall in allocation in Budget FY22—Rs 73,000 crore, from the Budget FY21 revised estimate of Rs 1.1 lakh crore—it remains, read against the DTE findings, perhaps one of the world’s largest adaptation programmes. Given climate change will increase the incidence of weather shocks—for instance, too much rain over a short period, over a small geography, or scanty rain in areas that were used to abundant rainfall—there is a need to build robust adaptation programmes; more so, with the time to act on planet-warming emissions having all but run out. The government needs to look at MGNREGA afresh, as a multi-purpose vehicle—one that plays an income-support role while creating ecological assets that become the mainstay of climate-support in the decades to come.