Guarantee against hunger?

By Tanushree Sood

If effectively implemented, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act will go a long way towards ensuring food security and protecting rural households from hunger

Work is not just about earning a wage. It brings with it a way of living, a sense of security and dignity. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which was passed by parliament on August 24, 2005, is an important step towards the realisation of the right to work in India.

The Act reinforces the duty of the State to provide employment to its citizens. The NREGA’s legal guarantee of 100 days of work at the state minimum wage promises substantial relief to rural households. The Act will go a long way towards ensuring food security and protecting rural households from hunger.

India has a history of employment-generation schemes starting from famine relief works, the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana and more recently the National Food for Work Programme. But these schemes were largely left to the discretion of the administrative machinery. 

With the NREGA,  work becomes a right. Such a guarantee of employment would, to some extent, act as a shield for the rural poor and the landless, saving them from the exploitative rich agricultural class.  

The NREGA and food security are significantly interlinked. The Act will give a necessary push to the purchasing power of the rural poor. An additional income of approximately Rs 6,000 a year for each participating household is estimated to be sufficient to pull a large section of families above the poverty line.

Women usually are a major proportion of the workforce employed at NREGA work sites. The Act will provide some economic independence to women.  Dungarpur district in Rajasthan is an example. Estimates suggest that about 90% of the 1.60 lakh workers employed in April 2006 in this area were women. Reports from other states also show high rates of participation of women at the work sites. Various workers’ organisations are asking for part payment of wages in kind. With such an amendment, the link between the Act and food security will be enhanced.

In rural areas, the poor are often compelled to work under hazardous conditions of drudgery and physical strain. The NREGA includes an element of basic facilities and dignity. Payment of wages within 15 days after completion of work, provision of drinking water and shaded areas at worksites are small steps to make the work less tiring. The demand for functional crèches at the work sites is also becoming stronger.

The Act is likely to make a dent in migration. Migration for work, both within and between states, is common in the countryside and the cities. When work is made available in the villages, many rural families are likely to stay back instead of going to the cities in the slack season. Noted activist  Aruna Roy spoke about this aspect at a recent social audit in Dungarpur district.

Another impact of the Act is a possible increase in the bargaining power of migrant labourers in states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. With the option of going back home, the workers will be able to ask for higher wages. However, migration will decrease only if work opportunities under the NREGA are relatively predictable – as they would be if the principle of ‘demand-driven employment’ actually works. Only if the workers are confident that work will be available, are they likely to reconsider migration.

The Act gives power and responsibility to the panchayat institutions. The gram sabha and the gram panchayat are two key implementing agencies in the Act. The Act authorises the gram sabha to recommend works to be taken up, to monitor and supervise these works, and to conduct social audits of the implementation. The panchayats are responsible for planning the works, executing 50% of the works, registering households and issuing job cards.

The NREGA is not just about creating employment, but also about developing the social infrastructure. The assets created under the Act will be a step towards growth through higher investment in rural infrastructure. The potential for labour-intensive public works in the field of environmental protection is massive; this includes areas such as watershed development, land regeneration, prevention of soil erosion, restoration of tanks, protection of forests and related activities.

Expenditure on the NREGA’s schemes will yield dividends not only in terms of  economic activity in the present but also by improving the conditions of production in rural areas in the future.   Needless to say, the implementation of the NREGA is critical. A strategy of spreading awareness and continuous pressure by workers’ organisations, community-based organisations and NGOs, is important. The NREGA will then be an effective instrument for reducing poverty and achieving food security.

(Tanushree Sood is a Research Associate with the Office of the Commissioners to the Supreme Court. The views in this article are her own and not of the Office of the Commissioners or of the Right to Food Campaign.)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006