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India And Her Myriad Responses to NREGA

the third of three stories for et 50.

It will probably take a big, fat book to describe the myriad impacts the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA ) has had on India. At one level, it has created a safety net for rural folks during summer months when employment is scarce. It has improved their bargaining power vis-a-vis large farmers and other employers. By paying the same wages to men and women, it has sent a strong message to our male-dominated society. In parts of India,bonded labourers have used NREGA to free themselves. Yet others have used the lumpy NREGA payments, which are not paid out at the end of the day’s work but together for several days’ work, to acquire bicycles, etc.

At another level, small and medium farmers are unable to compete with NREGA for labour. Even large farmers complain they struggle to find labour. As for the labourers, they report it is not easy to get 100 days of work. Indeed, the national average in 2009-10 was about 53 days of work. It is even harder to get the unemployment allowance that the Act entitles workers to if the state fails to provide 100 days. In parts of the country, tribals and SCs have found banks unwilling to open accounts. Then, despite being a self-selecting programme, NREGA has not been widely successful in attracting the poorest of the poor. People so poor that they need money to eat the next day, if not the same day, do not turn to NREGA. Why would they? It is almost impossible to predict when the cash will show up in bank accounts.

Then, across the country, the scheme continues to haemmorhage money to corruption. This is surprising. For, unlike the cash-for-work programmes of yore, where contractors were not above cooking up muster rolls or retaining a part of the workers money, NREGA deposits cash directly into workers bank accounts. However, rural Moriartys have neutralised that policy response. Sarpanches and village sachivs cut a deal with villagers where they get a part of NREGA money in return for putting the villagers name on the muster roll. The stakes are high here. Try and expose them. And honest bureaucrats might get transferred. Locals might get killed.

And then, there are more unexpected changes. For instance, panchayat elections in Chhattisgarh last year saw a new trend. The number of candidates vying to be sarpanches went up. And wannabe sarpanches spent far more than before on campaigning. Stories about candidates calling villagers over on the night before the polling, treating them to chicken, mutton and liquor were endemic. As were stories about poorer candidates selling their land to raise money for campaigning. One reason for this change was the jump in schemes like NREGA where government money flows directly to the panchayat. Much of which is spent at the discretion of the sarpanch.

The first six years of NREGA have been interesting. India with her myriad classes and castes has responded to the Act in myriad ways. Let us see what the coming years have in store.

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