How is India’s iconic NREGA social protection scheme doing? Interesting research from Tamil Nadu.

Some social programmes act as honey pots for busy bee researchers. A few years ago Brazil’s Bolsa Familia was the subject of choice, MGNREGA workersbut it seems to have been overtaken by India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which has researchers all over it.

A Global Insights paper from the University of Sussex has some great insights into the programme, based on a case study in Tamil Nadu involving in depth research in two villages, interviews with 109 MGNREGA workers, site organizers, village administrators and higher level officials.

First an intro to the programme:

‘In 2012-13 alone MNREGA benefitted nearly 50 million rural households across the subcontinent. MGNREGA was enacted by Parliament in 2005 and rolled out across all districts in 2008. It seeks to provide basic social security to India’s rural poor providing 100 days of guaranteed waged employment to every rural household. At the time of this research project, in late 2011, this was at an official daily wage rate of INR 119 (US$2) set by the Government of Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu, widely considered to be a ‘success’ story in terms of MGNREGA implementation, official data suggests that annual expenditure on the scheme stands at INR 41 billion (US$680 million) in 2012- 13. The average number of person days used per rural household has increased steadily, as has the total number of person days. Between 2008-9 and 2012-13, the total number of households who benefited from the scheme more than doubled from 3.3 million to 7 million.’

On to the survey:

‘In these two villages, in line with state-level data, the majority of MGNREGA workers are women (88 per cent) and Dalits (76 per cent). Compared to the village population as a whole, MGNREGA workers are less well educated (56 per cent having no education at all compared to 37.5 per cent of the village as a whole) and a higher proportion of them are divorced, separated or widowed (25 per cent, compared to around 10 per cent for the whole village population).

MGNREGA workers are drawn particularly from those households who depend on agricultural labour as their main source of income, rather than from households drawing their primary income from better paid, non-agricultural activities such as Tiruppur garment jobs or village based powerloom work.

MGNREGA logoWhen they are not working for MGNREGA, most workers (73 per cent) are employed as daily agricultural labourers, while a significant minority (15 per cent) has no other work at all: these are the old, weak, disabled or those with young children.

The main beneficiaries of the scheme are thus women, Dalits and villagers with little education or assets, and it is clear that in terms of reaching vulnerable rural groups, the scheme is remarkably successful in this region.

Key findings:

• In Tamil Nadu MGNREGA has benefitted the poorest of the poor, especially by providing a safety net and a tool for poverty alleviation. It has particularly benefitted rural women and others who depend on low paid agricultural work.

• The gendered impacts of MGNREGA are largely due to the universal, right-based and women-friendly nature of the policy, which has made it accessible and suitable for women and other vulnerable social groups.

• Working for MGNREGA suits the rural poor at different times of the year and for several reasons. In the study region the ‘pros’ of MGNREGA included its local availability throughout the year, relatively ‘easy’ work with fixed and regularly paid wages, equal pay for men and women, and the opportunity to work free from caste-based relations of subordination and discrimination.

• The scheme has produced transformative outcomes for the rural poor. It has a significant indirect effect on agricultural wages, creating a positive impact that reaches far beyond those it employs. It also improves the bargaining power of agricultural workers, most of whom are women.

• In terms of public works, the scheme has failed to create sustainable assets or to contribute to the development of the rural economy.

• Key to successful implementation is the nature of the bureaucratic and institutional organisation at the level of the state and below. In Tamil Nadu MGNREGA implementation has benefitted from cross-party support from the state government and a well-functioning state bureaucracy.

• Official MGNREGA data should be used with caution. Assessing the validity of this data by comparing it to field level observations, researchers found that in some ways the official MGNREGA data is reasonably robust, while in other – very important – ways it is highly problematic. This raises an important ‘flag of warning’ to others drawing on particular parts of the official MGNREGA dataset.’

Over to all the other MGNREGistas for their comments and links.

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2 Responses to “How is India’s iconic NREGA social protection scheme doing? Interesting research from Tamil Nadu.”
  1. Real Lavergne

    These various findings make eminent good sense to me, but there is one that disturbs me, namely that “In terms of public works, the scheme has failed to create sustainable assets or to contribute to the development of the rural economy.” This matters because everyone would like their labour to add value, and because the political viability of this scheme would no doubt be higher if the labour produces good value. Unfortunately, I could not find anything in the original short paper justifying this relatively strong assertion. There is a photo of some people cleaning out an irrigation ditch, which seems to me as something well worth doing, but that is as far as it goes.

  2. Martin Ravallion

    Yes, lots of research on this national scheme, almost all looking at just one place and often with an incomplete accounting of the economic impacts for poor people relative to the costs, and relative to the policy options. This new study is based on interviews with barely 100 workers from two villages in a state with over 70 million people, and a state with a rural poverty rate well below the national average. At least the authors are careful to say that they are only talking about one state of India.

    Alas, my own national research (with others) across all major states suggests that MGNREGS is working far less well in some of the poorer states, where it is needed the most. And our more intensive work in one such state, Bihar, gives a good idea of why, and what needs to be done to make the scheme work well in such places. (Our book has just been published; here is the un-gated link: If that can’t be done then there are clearly better options for fighting poverty; indeed, we show that even un-targeted transfers will have more impact for the same budget.

    Martin Ravallion
    Georgetown University