National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has now been
in operation for more than two years, even though it
is still being extended to all the rural areas of the
country. In that relatively short time, it has already
become one of the most avidly studied programmes of
the central government, with many independent evaluations
in different states as well as government audit of its
performance thus far.
It is increasingly recognised that the NREGA has the
potential not only to generate more employment directly
and indirectly, but also to transform rural economic
and social relations at many levels. But there is also
no doubt that this enormous potential is still incipient
and requires to be substantially supported in many different
ways. This is because the way that the NREGA has been
framed, and the desired mode of implementation, amount
to no less than asking for a social and political revolution.
The programme reverses the way the Indian state has
traditionally dealt with the citizenry, and envisages
a complete change in the manner of interaction of the
state, the local power elites and the local working
classes in rural India.
Thus, the NREGA is completely different in conception
from earlier government employment schemes that tended
to be in the form of paternalistic provision, since
it treats employment as a right and the programme is
intended to be demand-driven. Furthermore, the Act and
Guidelines anticipate very substantial participation
of the local people in the planning and monitoring of
the specific schemes, to a degree which has not been
at all common.
The very notion of employment as a right of citizens
(even if it is limited to 100 days per household in
the Act); of the obligation of the government to meet
the demand for work within a specified time period,
and to have developed a shelf of public works that can
be drawn upon to meet this demand; of the panchayat
participation in planning and monitoring; and the provision
for social audit, are all very new concepts.
For this to work, it requires, at the minimum, two things:
the ability and willingness of local government and
panchayats to plan works and run the programme effectively;
and the dissemination about the programme and its guidelines
to local people who can make use of it to register,
demand work and run social audits.
Obviously, all this will take time to permeate down
to the local levels. So to start with, an uneven record
of implementation is only to be expected. So is the
presence of a large number of problems that require
correction. There are bound to be difficulties and time
lags in making local officials and others responsive
to this very different approach.
And of course, both this different rights-based approach
and the implications of the programme in improving the
bargaining power of rural workers would necessarily
challenge the prevailing power structures, in some cases
quite substantially. Therefore attempts to oppose or
subvert the correct and full implementation of the scheme
in rural areas are only to be expected.
It is increasingly clear that effective implementation
of the NREGS requires at least the following conditions:
The capacity (including technical and administrative
capacity) and willingness of local government and
panchayats to plan works and run the programme effectively.
Dissemination about the programme and its guidelines
to local people who can make use of it to register
and demand work
to create ability to run social audits without fear
The willingness of local authorities to respond
to problems and criticisms, and to change their
behaviour accordingly, as well as effective redressal
mechanisms for those whose rights have not been
Of course, the programme is still very young, and is
only just being started in many districts. Chart 1 shows
that there has been significant expansion of the official
coverage of the NREGS in several states in the current
year, including Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh,
Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
However, as field reports have shown, the mere
expansion to more districts often does not actually
mean that the scheme is implemented on the ground, as
the local officialdom may not be prepared to take it
on or to fulfil all the conditions of transparency and
accountability that are stated in the Act.
1 provides a summary of the official evidence on implementation,
based on the data from the NREGA website. It calculates
the proportion of households that have received job
cards or employment by estimating total rural households
in each state (dividing the projections of rural population
from the Census of India with the average household
size estimated by the NSSO).
It is immediately clear that even based on the
official data there are very wide regional variations
in implementation. In fact, there are also big intra-state
variations, across districts and even blocks, which
cannot be captured here.
Table 1 shows, most states have improved on the provision
of job cards in the past two years, and in some states
such as Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan,
Orissa and West Bengal, a majority of rural households
have received job cards. An extreme case is Madhya Pradesh,
where the number of job cards issued exceeds the estimated
number of rural households! However, the northern states
of Punjab, Haryana and to a lesser extent Uttar Pradesh
are clearly lagging behind even in the distribution
of job cards.
However, the percentage of households that have received
some work under the scheme is significantly lower. Only
in Chhattisgarh in 2007-08 and in Rajasthan in the current
year, has it crossed half of estimated rural households.
In most states the gap between job card distribution
and actual provision of employment remains huge. Even
in MP, where more job cards have been distributed that
number of households, only 35 per cent of rural households
actually received some employment under the scheme.
Another surprise is Maharashtra, where the proportion
of households that has received work remains abysmally
low despite the state’s earlier experience of employment
This has been possible despite the provisions of the
Act, because most states collapsed the distinction between
demanding and receiving work, which is a major aspect
designed to ensure the accountability of government.
As Table 2 shows, the gap between the number of households
that demanded work and those that received it is very
small, often zero, suggesting that either workers are
not made aware that they need to separately demand work
or that states and local authorities are simply allowing
workers to fill in their demand for work when the work
is already being provided. This is a major lacuna that
needs to be addressed.
Despite this and several other gaps, there is already
some evidence of success. Field reports suggest that
there has been some improvement in consumption of the
poor, reduction of distress migration and slight increases
in lean season wage rates (especially for women) in
the areas where the programme has functioned successfully.
the NREGS has led to the disproportionate involvement
of women workers, far above expectation. As Chart 2
shows, in Kerala women account for as much as 85 per
cent of the total employment under the scheme. This
proportion is also high in the other southern states
and in Rajasthan. While the other southern states have
had high rural work force participation of women already,
Kerala and Rajasthan had had very low rates, so this
greater involvement of women in the NREGS must also
be leading to social changes.
Similarly, Charts 3 and 4 show significantly
higher participation of SCs and STs than their shares
of rural population in many states. While this may reflect
the fact that they are also more likely to be represented
among rural workers, even so it is a sign that the NREGS
has succeeeded in targeting the more socially disadvantaged
Obviously, these successes have to be sustained,
replicated and expanded. And in other areas the weaknesses
of the programme that have been identified by many observers
have to be addressed, including through local mobilisation.
But this cannot happen overnight - it is necessarily
a long process. The important thing is to create a socio-political
momentum whereby the programme will actually work as
intended across the country.