By Ujjwal Krishna
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been described by the World Bank as the largest antipoverty state-run employment-generation scheme in the world. It formed the cornerstone of the shift in the UPA’s approach to development towards universalisation and entitlements, articulated in the National Common Minimum Programme. The idea of an employment guarantee was also central to the Congress’s agenda in its 2004 election manifesto.
The BJP’s ascendance post-2014 raised several questions over the continuation of MGNREGA, especially in light of its welfare narrative distinguished from that of the Congress by way of its focus on ‘empowerment’, as opposed to a ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ focused agenda. Despite the BJP’s ideological differences with the Congress over the approach to employment generation, it has made the highest-ever budgetary allocations to MGNREGA, with `550 billion allocated to the scheme for FY19, up from `480 billion in the previous year. The preceding three years witnessed the NDA increase budgetary allocation towards it.
Even though the UPA was led by the Congress, a left-of-centre political party, a key factor in ensuring that the NREGA, when passed in 2005, was not watered-down to adhere to neoliberal conceptions of social policy was the dependence of the UPA on Left Front parties. After 2004 elections, the UPA would not have secured the numbers to form a government without the support of parties like the CPI(M). Left Front parties enjoyed disproportionate policy influence in such a set-up until their decision to withdraw support from the UPA.
This influence was exercised by way of interventions played out through the UPA-Left Coordination Committee negotiations, a party political process. Moreover, UPA alliance partners like the RJD brought political leaders to the Centre like rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, who played the crucial role of a bridge between the fiscal conservatives and populists in the UPA.
MGNREGA was the flagship scheme among the many policy initiatives of the first term of the UPA. Its success and impact on rural India is believed to have carried the UPA to another term at the Centre. However, as the second term of the UPA (2009-14) became increasingly mired in corruption scandals, the existing issues in MGNREGA’s implementation with states failing to provide employment, delaying and withholding wages, and corruption occurring due to a lack of proper social auditing and monitoring, were exacerbated by the UPA’s overall image of policy paralysis and inaction.
According to Ashok Pankaj, upon “reaching full acceleration in 2009-10 and 2010-11, (MGNREGS) decelerated in 2011-12 while the UPA was dilly-dallying with the idea of a cash transfer-based social protection programmes, aiming at 2014 parliamentary elections”, and the shift in attention from MGNREGA to DBT is partly to blame for the slack implementation of the scheme during 2011-14. Systematically cutting funding for MGNREGA began in 2010, by way of caps on allocated funds, causing administrative failures like problems with wage payment and provision of employment. Its impact on the employment generated through the scheme was that the number of households that got jobs increased by 89.5% over a decade. But the number peaked at 5.49 crore in 2011 and has since declined steadily.
The right-wing BJP-led NDA came to power in 2014, with Narendra Modi as PM. The BJP commanded a majority in the Lok Sabha by itself, and was thus less beholden to coalition partners in formulating its policies. It also placed technology at the heart of its policy agenda, onboarding the UPA’s DBT approach early on through its Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile trinity, with a view to migrating towards a cash-based welfare setup. Some believe this unfortunately glosses over the roots of governance delivery failures like complex procedures, weak human resources and poor training.
While proposals to scale back MGNREGA had been discussed during the first year of Modi government, in light of its pro-business and investment-oriented approach—hinged on a narrative of ‘empowerment’, exemplified by Make in India, Skill India, and Start-up India, etc—as opposed to the ‘entitlements’ and ‘rights’-oriented framework of the Congress, the NDA has made increasingly higher budgetary allocations to MGNREGA, with the figure for FY19 being the highest allocation till date, and has simultaneously not abandoned the programme.
But these allocations have followed the BJP learning from the adverse political consequences of initially attempting to strangulate MGNREGA through pointedly low allocations in the NDA’s first two years. At the same time, the NDA has altered the focus of MGNREGA towards emphasising on top-down, target-driven, asset-creation, which is the polar opposite of the UPA’s demand-driven job-creation regime focused on participatory decentralised development.
Ashok Pankaj argues there has been a sharp distinction in the nature of the programme pursued by the UPA and the NDA, which he describes as “wage-focused” against “asset-focused”, and “target-focused” at the cost of “demand-focused”, compromising the objective of participatory decentralised development.
But this “asset fetishism”, while not entirely undesirable, has nevertheless tilted the benefits of MGNREGA in favour of agriculturists, excluding landless rural labourer households that constitute a quarter of India’s rural population from accessing benefits of individual assets owing to their lack of land, and affecting job-creation.
The UPA had prioritised job-creation over asset-creation by mandating a wage-material expenditure ratio of 60:40 in the Act, which also mandated that four out of the eight works are to be labour-intensive.
Only a weak relationship exists between ‘political will’ and the implementation of a scheme, especially in Indian context, since there is a lack of a one-to-one mapping between economic and social ideologies on either side of the political spectrum in India. While lying on two opposite ends of the political spectrum, the Congress and the BJP have followed broadly the same paths in the pursuit of neoliberal policy.
With Modi lending no personal ideological support to MGNREGA, the BJP has been forced to retain the scheme for fear of losing electoral support in rural India. The enhanced outlays, and mere tweaking the programme’s attributes to justify its own ideological underpinnings, prove that political will cannot be seen as an important determinant of the implementation of MGNREGA in the case of the BJP.
(The author is with ICRIER, New Delhi)