A radical rural job scheme kicks off
Drought and water shortages were a way of life in Bandlapalli
Drought and water shortages were a way of life in Bandlapalli. The sleepy hamlet of around 2,000 people deep in the hinterland of arid Rayalaseema would suffer droughts almost every year, forcing its men and women to hitch rides to the nearest town and work in precarious construction sites. Dry spells of scorching heat and almost no rainfall would stretch longer and longer with every passing year, shrivelling crops and rendering agriculture economically unviable. It is in this village, on February 2, 2006, that then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi launched the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
Born out of a decades-long churn to bolster employment in India’s countryside, MGNREGS was considered the centrepiece of the Congress-led UPA’s social security agenda. It provided at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a year to those households whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work — considered a social and political game changer at the time. In Phase I, it was introduced in the 200 most backward districts in the country, and 130 additional districts in Phase II during 2007-08. The remaining districts were covered in Phase III after 2008. This was also drafted as a demand-based scheme, which means that the government is bound to fulfil every demand under the programme. Major works taken up include check dams, ponds, renovation of traditional water bodies, land development, embankment, field bunds, field channels, plantations and trenches.
As HT reported from the launch, the PM and Gandhi described it as a historic day — not surprising given the scale of implementation of the project. In 2022-23, the programme saw 151 million active workers and benefitted 57.8 million households, according to data from the MGNREGS website. The success of the scheme was considered a key reason for the Congress’s better-than-expected performance in the 2009 general elections, which saw it return to power with a strong showing in rural regions.
As the 2014 elections approached, the programme was slowly mired in controversies. The quality of work was dipping, many argued, and many of the assets created were only on paper. Corruption appeared rampant, and the proliferation of middlemen threatened to shave off a significant chunk of the livelihood that many marginal families would subsist on. Moreover, controversies around rising digitisation dogged the scheme with uneven access to technology flagged as a reason why people alleged in some pockets that they were denied wages.
Yet, there is no bigger proof of the resilience of MGNREGS than the fact that the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government built upon the programme and even expanded it, while working to resolve last-mile delivery issues, improve quality of assets created, and plug leakages. The pandemic proved its usefulness as demand boomed, and MGRENGS acted as a safety net, preventing families (especially migrant labourers who walked hundreds of kilometres back to their villages during the first lockdown) from slipping into destitution. In Bihar, which saw 2.5 million migrants return, the government provided 2.174 man days of work that year, up from 1.427 million. It was also a time when digitised payments acted as a boon.
This Budget saw a nearly 30% drop in central allocation for the programme. Yet, its imprint on rural India has been deeply transformational. Nowhere is it more visible than Bandlapalli, where distress migration has tapered off and people remember their MGNREGS job card numbers almost as well as their names. As the local project director told HT when it went back to the village in 2021, “Now, we have water.”