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Rob Jenkins and James Manor. Politics and the Right to Work: India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

Himanshu
Bibliographical reference

Jenkins, Rob and James Manor. 2017. Politics and the Right to Work: India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. London: Hurst & Company. pp xii+323

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Introduction

  • 1 The act was subsequently renamed as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA (...)
  • 2 The act lays down guidelines on the distribution of funds between material consumed and wages paid (...)

1The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)1 is a unique legislation not just in India but also among developing countries for the simple reason that no other developed, nor developing, country has enacted a right to employment. In simple terms, it guarantees 100 days per year of paid work, on demand and as a manual laborer, to every adult resident of rural areas. As a legislative act it provides for compensation in the form of an unemployment allowance for delays in wage payment and as compensation for failure of the government to provide jobs. It lays down guidelines for the process of seeking work and sanction of work as well as defining a wage-material ratio2 for the work itself. Since the NREGA was passed as an act of parliament, it is justiciable and it is this feature of the program that makes it different from other social protection initiatives of the government. For many, economists in particular, it represents an attempt to enshrine social security in a rights-based discourse: NREGA is seen as an attempt to recognize and legislate a full-fledged right to work. However, any attempt to understand the passage and implementation of NREGA solely as a social security scheme to help the poor is overlooking its political significance in altering and redefining the political economy of growth and redistribution in India. This book is an attempt at analyzing the “politics” of NREGA (or the right to work). While there is a vast literature examining the efficiency and efficacy of an intervention such as the NREGA, this book is certainly unique in exploring the politics rather than the functioning of the Act.

2The book traces NREGA’s journey from its mobilization and enactment in parliament through its implementation and goes on to examine the act’s impact on local politics and governance. Authors Rob Jenkins and James Manor are well known and respected academics and they have successfully utilized their expertise and depth of knowledge in analyzing various aspects of NREGA. The chapters in this book are based on the authors’ fieldwork in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (MP) oriented around qualitative interviews with various stakeholders. The book has eight chapters including the introductory first chapter.

  • 3 According to the authors, “governance rights” are characterized by the hybridity of what is guarant (...)

3Chapter 1 lays down the conceptual framework used by the authors, followed by a brief summary of the major arguments. The authors present six interconnected arguments concerning the relationship between politics and NREGA. The first two arguments concern the performance of NREGA and its significance for alternative development. The next two arguments are embedded in the political economy discourse in India and make important claims regarding the inclusiveness of political interventions and the changing nature of “clientelist” politics. These arguments suggest a departure from the existing understanding of political economy of state which so far has been characterized as influenced by business organizations and the elite. The inclusivity and accountability of NREGA is also presented by authors as an example of the transformation of “clientelist” politics. The third set of arguments is relevant for the comparative study of development politics. These two arguments look at NREGA as a role model for “governance rights”3 and deal specifically with the roles of civil society and local tiers of governance, or panchayats, in India.

  • 4 NCMP is the agenda of governance agreed upon by coalition partners during the UPA government.

4Chapter Two traces the origins of NREGA based on discussion with key participants. While these “participants” include a large number of civil society activists, members of the National Advisory Council and bureaucrats, the chapter leaves out some of the key events and players. The authors underplay the role of leftist parties that were part of the UPA government of 2004-2009. The left played an important role not just in mobilizing opinion in favor of a national employment-guarantee act, but also insisted on this being the first priority in the National Common Minimum Program (NCMP).4 The authors refer to Congress party’s reluctance despite Sonia Gandhi’s personal commitment. The authors also miss out on highlighting the role of the “food for work” program which was implemented after massive mobilization and campaign by the left and other political parties. It was implemented by the National Democratic Alliance government of 1999-2004 and played an important role in providing an example of the scale and nature of such interventions.

  • 5 While the NAC in UPA-2 had the same set of key players, it failed to persuade the government to tak (...)

5A simple comparison with another landmark act, The National Food Security Act (NFSA), which had the same set of actors (except the Left), is an effective illustration of the Left’s role in NREGA. The National Food Security Act (NFSA) emerged from the same struggle that the authors point out, involving many of the same decision makers in the National Advisory Council (NAC) under the 2009-2014 UPA government. Interestingly, the role of the judiciary was far more proactive in this case than for the NREGA. It also had large support from regional parties, which were already implementing most of the provisions for NFSA. However, despite a supporting majority from the Congress party, the NFSA was passed just months before the end of the UPA-2 government whereas NREGA was passed by UPA-1 in 2005. While individuals played a role, they are limited in function to what ruling party/parties allow; in effect also a characteristic of the political ideology and orientation of the political party. Ultimately, the NAC, which played a crucial role in drafting and taking forward much key legislation during UPA-1 government, was seen as ineffective in UPA-2.5

6The third chapter of the book, on local level politics, is an important chapter in the overall scheme of arguments made by the authors. The details on local politics and its interaction with NREGA are not only interesting insights into the functioning of panchayats but also bring out the fissure points inherent in local political structures. The fact that NREGA has managed to circumvent some of these but at the same time has not been able to break the stronghold of local caste dynamics is an important reminder of the nature of politics at local level and its relationship with larger scale politics. Some of these issues are explored in detail in the next two chapters, which deal with the states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, studied in detail by the authors. The story of Rajasthan is particularly interesting given that it was the state where much of the movement for NREGA originated. However, it is also a state which witnessed rapid deterioration in the performance of NREGA during 2008-2013, an important reminder of the limitations of civil society engagement in the absence of political support. Madhya Pradesh on the other hand has seen the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party take ownership of the scheme even though it was initiated by its principal rival, the Congress party, in the state. Given that, unlike Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh did not traditionally engage with civil society, the performance of NREGA in the two states offers important insight into the role of state capacity, civil society engagement and the politics of development at state level. Some of the issues discussed earlier are brought together in Chapter 6 where the authors provide details on the impact of NREGA on the public’s welfare. Chapter 7 then uses these observations at state level to examine the political impact and policy evolution at national level. Chapter 8 discusses the implications for politics and development. These, presented to the reader in the introduction, are further substantiated based on findings from the authors’ field work and the analyses presented in previous chapters. This is followed by an epilogue that discusses the approach of the newly elected Modi government following the results of the 2014 election. Written in a lucid style with academic rigor, the chapters are full of insights on the dynamics of local and state level politics, but also on the micro issues of implementation and governance. These two threads effectively bind all the chapters together into a new perspective on the politics of welfare versus the politics of redistribution.

  • 6 NREGA was enacted in August 2005. The scheme was made operational in February 2006 initially within (...)
  • 7 See, Khera and Nayak (2009); Dasgupta and Sudarshan (2011); Azam (2011); Himanshu, Mukhopadhyay and (...)
  • 8 See, Afridi and Iversen (2014); Aiyar, Mehta and Samji (2011).

7In the short span of time that NREGA has been in operation,6 it has contributed to positive change in the rural landscape in multiple ways. NREGA has successfully drawn women, scheduled castes and other marginalized communities into the scheme, while helping to raise wages in rural areas.7 Indirectly, it has contributed to the rejuvenation of the rural economy through creation of infrastructure and non-farm employment in rural areas. However, its most significant contribution remains the creation of an architecture for public service delivery through social audits, which is participative as well as democratizing.8

8While the analysis of NREGA, or for that matter any of the other legal rights, must be considered within the broader context of India’s political economy, this book goes further and focuses on the politics involved, or as the authors define it the “interplay of actors, institutions, and ideas in the pursuit, distribution, and exercise of power” (p. 5). Not only expanding on the notion of politics beyond the role of state and other actors, this analysis also redefines the nature of contestation that is inherent in politics, not just of ideas but also between various stakeholders. Clearly, politics underlies all schemes and legislations in the country, but a distinguishing feature of NREGA is that it also attempts to alter the nature of class-relations in the countryside, which has implications for its survival as well as success. While Jenkins and Manor’s attempt to analyze different facets of NREGA implementation is commendable and should be essential reading for anybody interested in understanding the nature of state, politics and mobilization for such rights, the book needs to extend the discourse beyond the politics of enactment, implementation and impact, or in short the politics of governance. In that sense, the book raises many more questions than it provides answers.

The Changing Fortune of NREGA

9NREGA is now more than a decade old. During this period, NREGA has emerged as a political strategy, uplifting millions of poor from poverty, however, during this same ten years NREGA failed to achieve some of its key objectives. Nothing could convey more obviously the politics of NREGA than the speech of the current Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, on 27th February 2015; his first speech during the parliament’s budget session after becoming Prime Minister. Addressing the Parliament he said, “People can doubt my understanding on some subjects but no one can doubt my political sense. My understanding tells me never to remove MGNREGA because it is a monument of failure of the Congress party; it has to pay people to dig ditches. With song and dance and drum beat, I will continue with the scheme.” Almost a decade after the NREGA was enacted; the outburst of Mr. Modi is as much recognition of the impact of the program on the ground as it is a reflection of the deep rooted hatred of the scheme.

10Ironical as it may sound, the same government led by Mr. Modi, which won a resounding victory for the second time in 2019, is looking at the MGNREGA to bail out the economy from its current deep slump. Economic growth has plummeted to historic lows driven by lack of demand in the rural economy; something which could have been prevented had the government paid attention to revamping and reviving that same economy through MGNREGA rather than mocking it. Even the strongest critics of NREGA among economists are now crying for more funds to be allocated for NGREGA. However, the government refuses to strengthen NREGA even though it is willing to offer billions of rupees to corporates as tax cuts.

11However, blaming the current regime led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alone for the current state of affairs as far as NREGA is concerned is unfair since the process of dilution of the NREGA was initiated by the Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Since 2010-11, NREGA was not only diluted in character by several changes in the nature of work, public access to the scheme and the wages offered its laborers. The book misses out on some of these changes most of which happened after 2010-12 immediately after the UPA government began its second term. The question that really needs to be asked is what changed between these two moments, the first being when the NREGA was credited for re-election of the Congress party with increased majority in 2009, and the other in 2015 when NREGA was declared “a monument of failure.”

12Unfortunately, this question remains mainly unanswered in this book; even though the politics of NREGA is central to understanding some of the changes the Act underwent post-2011. In fact, one of the drawbacks of the book is that the time period covered in the analysis is only up to 2011-12 even though the book is published in 2017. The absence of analysis after 2011 leaves the reader with an inadequate understanding of the political mobilization around NREGA and its implementation.

  • 9 Aadhar is a biometric authentication scheme launched by the government in 2009. Every resident in t (...)

13There are four features of NREGA that are highlighted by the authors as central to understanding the politics of NREGA implementation. The first is that the program is inclusive in rural areas. That is, unlike in previous such schemes, there are no exclusion criteria and every rural adult is entitled to participation in NREGA. However, the strength of this feature has slowly diminished, first by the mandatory linking of NREGA job cards with bank accounts and then to Aadhar9 registration. Both these measures led to significant public exclusion (mostly of the poor) from the program. The second feature is the role of the gram sabha (local village council) in deciding the nature of the works to be taken up (tanks, roads, water conservation, drainage and so on) which did not work as expected due to the diminishing functionality of village councils and the failure of efforts to revive it. Village level interactions did have the effect of consolidating interest groups leading to perverse outcomes such as the denial of NREGA benefits to political opponents. The third feature is government mandated minimum wages recognized as the largest contributor to poverty alleviation, directly as well as indirectly. However, even this provision has been adulterated over time, the central government refusing to pay state mandated minimum wages. The result has been that NREGA wages in 2017-18 were almost half of the market wages in most states. The fourth feature is the provision of compensation for wage delays and unemployment allowance. While the unemployment allowance never actually worked (hardly any state pays unemployment allowance), even the compensation for wage delays was diluted over time. Most of the weakening of these strong points of the Act happened through amendments made in parliament by the same UPA government that enacted the original legislation while some were taken forward by the current BJP government. A major question then is why there were no counter mobilizations to prevent these changes if the program was successful in effecting a fundamental transformation in how social protection initiatives are implemented. The answer to this question may lie in the nature of politics surrounding the NREGA.

The Politics of Welfare and Governance

14Right at the outset of the book, the authors clearly lay down six major hypotheses around three themes—evaluation of NREGA, debates on political economy in India and the comparative study of development politics. Of these, the two hypotheses on the performance of NREGA are least contested. NREGA did lift millions out of poverty and its significance goes beyond the simple narrative of a poverty alleviation program. But the second axis of locating NREGA in the broader political economy of India is not so straightforward. The authors’ argument that the Indian state “offers openings for voices seeking to effect progressive social change in the interest of non-elite groups” (p.239) has never been in question. In fact, there are numerous examples of this starting from the legal provisions of reservation for government jobs and access to higher education to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), later expanded to Other Backward Castes (OBC). However, what made the reservations unique was a political mobilization behind which vocal and politically active interest groups who continued to defend and strengthen it. There is no such equivalent political mobilization to defend the rights of workers, even though the number of families that benefit from it is as large, if not greater, than the groups that benefit from reservation. Attempts to form trade unions of NREGA workers never took off and existing trade unions have not shown interest in raising the demands of NREGA workers. Even at the time of severe economic slowdown, with unemployment at the highest level in decades and real wages declining, there is hardly any political mobilization in favor of using NREGA to raise rural incomes. Compare this with the mobilization during the last three years in favor of farmers demanding higher minimum support prices, loan waivers, input subsidy increases and direct income transfers. Not only did the mobilization gain political visibility of declining farmer incomes, it also succeeded in getting Rs. 90000 crores as cash transfer, almost one third higher than the allocation for NREGA.

15The answer to this puzzle may partly lie in the nature of the rural political economy. In fact, the largest opposition to NREGA did not come from the neoliberal economists or the corporate sector but from farmers and landowners. It is the farmer unions that agitated against NREGA and in some states even managed to get it suspended during peak agricultural seasons in part because farmers held NREGA responsible for rising costs of cultivation as labor wages increased alongside workers’ attempts to use NREGA as a bargaining chip. At a time when farmers are at the receiving end of government policy and suffering from declining income as farm labor struggles with stagnant wages, there has been no mobilization or coalition of workers demanding better implementation of NREGA.

Politics of Governance

16The argument that NREGA is a precursor of a new category of rights which the authors rightly call “governance rights,” is certainly valid in case of NREGA. However, the Act’s innovative features have not been sustained even in those states, such as Rajasthan studied in detail by the authors, where they worked very well initially. It is also apparent that such reforms in governance are very much mediated by the presence of a strong civil society movement, typically led by established NGOs. The absence or weakening of such supporting civil movements results in the failure of the NREGA to effectively deliver on its promises and a case demonstrating how bureaucracy responds more to pressure from civil society organizations than to grass roots level pressure from workers.

17The book also raises the fundamental question of whether confrontationist politics, or demands for rights can be sustained through governance reform. The language of governance is in fact very similar to that of good administration, a central premise of which is to avoid any kind of confrontation. Politics, especially the one that prioritizes rights, is not always peaceful and cannot be controlled only through good governance. The politics of “good governance” has some element of patronage linked with it where the state decides what is good for you. Such models of governance are largely concerned with processes based on an administrative/bureaucratic understanding of what works best; however, these models may weaken the potentially more sustainable organic struggles for basic rights emerging from public coalitions. The dilution of the basic features of NREGA after 2011-12 is surprising. Not for the way it was diluted by the administrative machinery but the absence of any mobilization to resist the changes. The fact that the beneficiaries of NREGA failed to build alliances between workers and farmers even when the minimum wages were reduced to almost half of market wages is a clear pointer of the lack of support NREGA has from other sections of rural economy. Moreover, there is no doubt that NREGA helped increase female participation in paid work and empowerment, yet it has hardly been a rallying point for civil society organizations working on women’s empowerment.

Conclusion

18The ideas discussed in this book are keys to an understanding of struggles for socio-economic rights around the world and the response of the corresponding state. At a time when inequality is rising in developing as well as developed countries, there is a rising demand for policies to reduce inequalities. While reducing inequality is central to reducing poverty, policies addressing these issues have not received the same attention as those focusing on social protection and poverty alleviation. What makes NREGA different from such interventions is the inclusive right-based approach backed by legislation. While it is naive to assume that mere enactment of NREGA can lead to the changing of a structure of power relations embedded in unequal access to assets and political power, it certainly has the potential to be a tool for mobilization against inequality as fostered by structures of power. This same transformative potential however, is also what attracts backlash against NREGA, the issue being whether the politics of governance is sufficient to ensure that it also leads to politics of contestation generating broader mobilization against the deep rooted structures of inequality. While there are no simple answers to most of these complex questions, this book is certainly a primer for those interested in trying to understand the complexity of development politics in a country like India.

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Bibliography

Afridi, Farzana, and Vegard Iversen. 2014. “Social Audits and MGNREGS Delivery: Lessons from Andhra Pradesh.” Institute for the Study of Labor, IZA Discussion Paper, No. 8095.

Aiyar, Yamini, Soumya Kapoor Mehta, and Salimah Samji. 2011. “Strengthening Public Accountability: Lessons from Implementing Social Audits in Andhra Pradesh.” Engaging Accountability: Working Paper Series, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Azam, Mehtabul. 2011. “The Impact of Indian Job Guarantee Scheme on Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” Institute for the Study of Labour, IZA Discussion Papers 6548.

Dasgupta, Sukti, and Ratna M. Sudarshan. 2011. “Issues in Labour Market Inequality and Women’s Participation in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme.” Policy Integration Department, International Labour Office, Working Paper No. 98.

Himanshu, Abhiroop Mukhopadhyay, and R M Sharan. 2015. “NREGS in Rajasthan: Rationed Funds and Their Allocation across Villages.” Economic and Political Weekly 50(6):52–60.

Khera, Reetika, and Nandini Nayak. 2009. “Women Workers and Perceptions of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India.” Economic and Political Weekly 44(43):49–57.

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Notes

1 The act was subsequently renamed as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Both NREGA and MGNREGA are used interchangeably in this review.

2 The act lays down guidelines on the distribution of funds between material consumed and wages paid in any work under NREGA. At present, the guidelines suggest that 60% of total cost should be used as wage payments with remaining funds to be used for materials.

3 According to the authors, “governance rights” are characterized by the hybridity of what is guaranteed but also how these are enforced.

4 NCMP is the agenda of governance agreed upon by coalition partners during the UPA government.

5 While the NAC in UPA-2 had the same set of key players, it failed to persuade the government to take effective steps to prevent dilution of NREGA or speedy passage of NFSA. In the wake of the anti-corruption movement, it was also criticized for not pushing hard for the Lokpal bill that was ultimately passed at the end of UPA-2.

6 NREGA was enacted in August 2005. The scheme was made operational in February 2006 initially within 200 districts but was expanded to the entire country by 2008.

7 See, Khera and Nayak (2009); Dasgupta and Sudarshan (2011); Azam (2011); Himanshu, Mukhopadhyay and Sharan (2015).

8 See, Afridi and Iversen (2014); Aiyar, Mehta and Samji (2011).

9 Aadhar is a biometric authentication scheme launched by the government in 2009. Every resident in the country is provided a unique number based on fingerprints and iris scans. Although it started as voluntary, over the years, it has been linked with various programs and has now expanded to cover the entire country.

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References

Electronic reference

Himanshu, « Rob Jenkins and James Manor. Politics and the Right to Work: India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act », South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], Book Reviews, Online since 22 January 2020, connection on 08 August 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/6262

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About the author

Himanshu

Associate Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and Visiting Fellow, Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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