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Civil rights leader explains how authorities in Bihar seek to 'undermine' MGNREGA

By Fareed Mohammad Ansari*

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been a politically controversial scheme ever since its inception in 2006. Some politicians have referred to fit as a means for menial jobs for poor, while others claim it as a symbol of the erstwhile UPA government’s failure. But the fact is, it is the only employment scheme that directly benefits the unemployed poor and downtrodden in the rural areas.
Evidently, MGNREGA is one of very few schemes of the government to reach out to the poorest directly – others being the public distribution system (PDS) and the direct cash transfer. Yet, amidst dissonance between the ground reality and the political jargon, criticisms have become a banality. An interaction with activist Ashish Ranjan helped understand how it has fared on ground over the course of time, especially in Bihar, the state with one of the largest number of daily wagers.
Ashish Ranjan is an activist based in Araria, North Bihar. He is a founding member of a union called Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan (JJSS). He actively worked in Bihar to make the entitlements given under MGNREGA a reality. He is also working for different campaigns across the nation such as the Right to Information Act and the Right to Food. He is a national convenor of the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), a civil rights network. 
His work for MGNREGA started in 2008 when he along with well-known development economist Jean Dreze conducted a survey to assess the scheme in six Hindi speaking states, including Bihar. Following the survey, carried out under the banner of the Jan Jagran Abhiyan and made public in Patna, JJSS was founded as a union of MGNREGA workers in order to mobilize people and educate them regarding the functioning of the scheme and the entitlements under it.
As time passed, Ashish Ranjan and his team identified structural problems with the scheme. They found a wide gap between the MGNREGA wage for labourers, which is decided by the Central government, and the State Minimum Wage of Bihar. Presently, the gap is of nearly Rs 70-80. Had the MGNREGA wages and minimum wages been combined, the problem wouldn’t have arisen.
Further, MGNREGA, like any other scheme, is plagued with large scale corruption at different levels, and its capacity to employ people is lower than required in Bihar, which is a home to the largest number of migrant labourers.
Other lacunae identified in the scheme include failure to involve the panchayati raj institution, which is of paramount for the implementation of the scheme, refusal to appoint MGNREGA commissioners, project management staff and engineers. Even though the posts have been created, the recruitment is seldom done. 
MGNREGA commissioners are hired part time. The implementation of the scheme lacks political will, and no excitement is shown by the government towards it. “Keeping in mind the scale of workers who migrate from Bihar, had there been political will and creative management of the scheme, the outcomes would have been phenomenal”, says Ashish Ranjan. 
There is barely any worker who is employed for 100 days, as promised under the Act. The capacity of the scheme is very low in Bihar
In Bihar, the data for the average number of days for which the registered workers (workers who have worked even for a single day) are employed in a year suggest, on an average they are employed for 40-45 days in a year. There is barely any worker who is employed for 100 days, as promised under the Act. Thus, the capacity of the scheme is very low in the state. Considering problems of heavy rains and floods in northern Bihar, the period of employment is quite low.
Further, the budget sanctioned for Bihar under the scheme is not sufficient. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the budget sanctioned has been around Rs 5,000 crore. However, as for Bihar, the allocation has ranged between Rs 2,500 crore and Rs 3,000 crore over the years, though it should have been much higher. 
Ashish Ranjan and his team organized common masses under JJSS, wherein the union demands for work for the behalf of individuals, and receives a receipt, and so the demand for work gets officially registered. Once the demand is registered, the work is allotted. Thus, the registration of demand is a crucial part of the process. The union works to bring those in actual need of work under its ambit and gets them registered for work.
JJSS activists found that often projects are completed with the help of machines in a limited time, and a fake list of labourers is generated. Many times individuals seeking work are told that they are on the list of those who would be employed under the scheme. But when they revisit sites, they are told that the work is is not available. Without intervention by JJSS, the authorities would not register the demand for work. Once the demand is registered in the MIS system, the work should be allotted. 
There are times when the work is not allotted due to halting of project even even after the demand is registered. At other times, when the demand is forcibly registered, the panchayat chief allots contentious projects which are bound to halt in a day or two. In these cases, JJSS cadres, on behalf of all the workers, take up the issue with the higher authorities, and the project starts.
When people come together and raise their demands in an organized manner under the entitlements provided by the law, the authorities are forced to register their demands. This is a major achievement of JJSS. However, JJSS’ success has is not without challenges. Divisive forces have been at work to break the union. There have been instances when the local MGNREGA authorities declared union leaders as ultra left to dismiss their demands. “Once a person is categorized and stereotyped, his or her opinion and fight are no longer considered and pondered upon”, says Ashish Ranjan.
Ashish Rajan believes that the movements to attain what is entitled under a law have a limitation: They are not transformational on account of limited scope of what the law pertains to. For any movement to succeed, mass participation of people and commitment of leadership are imperative.
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*MBA Class of 2021 student at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad

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