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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 23, May 23, 2009

Has the Congress earned Dividend from the NREGA?

Saturday 23 May 2009, by Sitaram Kumbhar

There are many ways of making analysis of the winner in the 15th Lok Sabha election of 2009. Believe it or not, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a flagship scheme, and farm loan waiver of the United Progressive Alliance Government helped it in the 2009 general election, like the garibi hatao (remove poverty) slogan of Indira Gandhi did to the Congress to regain power with a magnificent win in 1971. The only difference between the NREGA and garibi hatao is that the latter was a mere slogan whereas the former is already an Act which silently came to the advantage of the Congress. Garibi hatao had got spectacular response from the rural masses especially from the rural landless people. Similarly, the NREGA has energised the whole of rural India. The Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in one of the party conventions on the NREGA, had stressed the role of partymen to reach to the poor through the NREGA in the non-Congress States. In her address, Sonia said: “We have to keep a watch on those States where the Congress does not have its government; if progress is unsatisfactory we have to resort to agitations.” (The Times of India, May 27, 2006) The party would not have improved in all the States without the NREGA. However, it is a fact that winning on the basis of performance is certainly more difficult than seeking votes on the basis of promises.

The NREGA is already operational in the whole of India and all the poorest regions/districts are implementing it. It has been helpful in providing employment opportunities to the rural poor. It has helped them to escape from starvation and food insecurity. The political leaders of different political parties could not appreciate the inherent strengths of one of the gargantuan welfare schemes in the world like the NREGA.

While doing my field work in Kalahandi district of Orissa, a district which had almost become synonymous with poverty, hunger, starvation deaths and child selling, I found a large number of poor people taking about the NREGA. Indeed, most of them happily said that the NREGA was of great help to them. As a response to whom they would be voting in the next election, they said they would “vote for employment” or in other words the NREGA (vote kebala rojagara pai, in Oriya). Perhaps their words got replicated in the 2009 election. The Congress won in Kalahandi parliamentary constituency because the NREGA helped them where it had lost for the last two-and-a-half decades. This indicates that the NREGA is a revolutionary initiative of the UPA Government and helped the Congress party. Though the Left political parties and other UPA allies formed an integral part of the movement which fought for making the “Employment Guarantee” a legal right, they could not encash on the same. Most credit seems to have gone for the Congress in large parts of India. What is surprising is that a large part of rural India voted for the NREGA.

The civil nuclear agreement with the USA is less urgent for the rural poor than the NREGA. The rural poor need food first and then electricity though the latter can certainly further enhance their standard of living. However, urban India seems to have supported the latter and the civil nuclear agreement between India and America in particular. As a result of which the Congress party swept the national Capital and the financial capital of India—Mumbai—in the recent Lok Sabha election. In other words, most of the parliamentary seats in urban cities have gone to the Congress. This success of the Congress in urban India might have been for three reasons which influenced the voting behaviour in urban India.

The first and foremost was the role of the media campaign in urban India for the civil nuclear agreement between India and America. Those parties, which opposed the agreement alleging the surrender of national sovereignty to American neo-imperialism, were openly branded as anti-national, anti-development, pro-China etc. by the national media and vernacular media. The Left parties were the target of the media for quite some time now. The urban middle class was the victim of such a media campaign. Secondly, the urban voters seem to have shown paucity of interest in communalism, sectarian and divisive politics. It is a fact that the BJP had an edge over the Congress in terms of support-base among the urban educated middle class in the previous three Lok Sabha elections. However, it is astounding that the urban middle class voted for the Congress party this time. Thirdly, the clean public image of Dr Manmohan Singh and agenda of economic reform might have been to the liking of a large segment of the urban population. Thus, the Congress earned double dividend from the civil nuclear agreement with America and the NREGA in urban and rural India respectively.

Neo-liberal economic policies historically went to the disadvantage of the rural poor and impoveri-shed a large chunk of the rural people engaged in agriculture and its allied activities. However, many in the national media considered Dr Singh as pro-development and pro-reform which, many argue, paid dividend to the Congress. They forgot to concede that the pro-poor NREGA helped the Congress. Many election pandits have started arguing that good governance helps leaders to win elections. They do so by the drawing conclusion from the 2009 general election. The landslide victory of some of the leaders with clean public image and delivering good governance for the people has prompted the election pundits to actually connect good governance with election victory.

The argument that the voters wanted a stable government and voted the Congress back to power with a clear mandate is wrong. No voter in India had such an idea while casting his vote. The Congress has also started misreading the verdict of the people. It should bear in mind that Dr Manmohan Singh became the only Prime Minister (on May 16, 2009) since Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 to be voted back after completing a full five-year term and got the highest number of seats any single party has got in 25 years. It is the first show of the Congress party in UP since 1984. In fact, in UP the Congress drew a blank in 1998. It is surprising that most candidates with criminal records lost in UP. It is synonymous to the BJP’s win in the aftermath of Kargil war in 1999. This (2009) is Congress’s second best performance in Rajasthan after the 1984 Lok Sabha polls when it won 25 out of 25.

A large number of non-government organisations (NGOs) are spreading awareness among the people regarding the NREGA. The social activists and NGOs helped the Congress to win this election as the party is almost cadreless in most parts of India. The number of NGOs working especially on the issues of employment guarantee is surprisingly high. Therefore, credit should legitimately go to the NGO wing of the Congress party. This has not yet attracted the attention of the election pundits. The role of the media campaign in the last couple of years on the genuine issues cannot be overlooked.

In West Bengal, the neo-liberal economic policies of the Left parties were rejected by the highly mobilised and politically aware people of the State. Though the anger of the people and the pre-poll understanding of the Congress and Trinamul Congress helped them fight the CPM, it is time to wait and watch what will happen to the progressive character of the State with the entry of these political forces. In West Bengal, this is the first time since 1984 that the CPM has finished behind others. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, the elections that followed saw the Left being routed in West Bengal for the first time after 1977.

What is National Rural Employment Guarantee Act?

The NREGA is one of the revolutionary steps of the United Progressive Government, which guarantees employment to the rural populace to enable them to escape poverty and starvation deaths in rural areas. Assured income will help the poor to bargain wage with the employers leading to the end of exploitation of the unemployed rural mass. It goes a step further and secures the legal right of the people of the Gram Sabha to conduct social audits of work being performed under the NREGA. This is the first acknowledge-ment by the government that it requires people’s help in tackling an imperfect system.

The NREGA, launched in February 2006 in 200 districts, has been a subject of controversy and debate since the days when the experts of the National Advisory Council prepared its blueprint. On December 23, 2004 the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill (NREGB) was referred to the Standing Committee on Rural Development, whose final report was placed before Parliament. The landmark legislation was passed by the Lok Sabha on August 23 and the Rajya Sabha on August 24, 2005. The Centre has taken the responsibility of providing financial assistance to the scheme and the States only have to implement it. The minimum wage, as applicable in various States under the Minimum Wages Act 1948, would apply to the programme. However, the Centre would step in to ensure a minimum rate of not less than Rs 60 a day in States where it is lower. Many people highlight the NREGA’s potentials to reduce rural unemployment, but it has its regular critics who have regularly pilloried it as a burden on the state exchequer calling it short-sighted. The critics argue that it will not help in reducing poverty and only make the Babus rich by large scale corruption.

The NREGS has been one of the biggest programmes to combat rural poverty. Its legal guarantees have radically altered the relationship of the poor with the state. It is necessary to examine how the NREGA is helping the poor in the backward regions in India which assures legal guarantee for at least 100 days of employment in a year to one member of the poor and needy household. It is different from many other anti-poverty schemes of the government that were in operation prior to the implementation of the NREGA. The NREGA is meant for both rich and poor households. There were no transparency safeguards in earlier rural employment schemes. Fudging of muster rolls and embezzlement of government funds was common. Documents were not available for public scrutiny. But the transparency safeguards and mandatory social audit have put the NREGA on a different footing in preventing corruption. It is a historical truth that record keeping in employment generation schemes has been very poor and it was not available for public scrutiny. It has stopped rural to urban migration during the slack season. It has empowered women leading to their economic independence. The economic dependency of women on their husband is the decline. The women seem to have voted for the Congress than any other political party due to the NREGA.

The Act places an enforcement obligation on the state, and gives bargaining power to the labourers. There is another major difference between a scheme and an Act. Schemes come and go, but Acts are more durable. A scheme can be cancelled by even a bureaucrat at will, but as the NREGA is an Act, any changes need amendment of Parliament.

Implement NREGA to Garner People’s Support

Contrary to the arguments of the election pundits, I argue that pro-active implementation of the NREGA helped to garner votes in the large part of rural India than any other election issue could garner. Though the NREGA was not an issue in 2009, it helped those leaders who implemented it. Those leaders, who were pro-active in imple-menting the NREGA, have got enormous response from the voters. The rural voters have reposed their faith in them for doing the right thing which the rural poor needed the most. This response from the rural masses is primarily for two important reasons. The first reason is that a large chunk of the rural population is below the poverty line and they urgently needed a scheme like the NREGA. Secondly, the scheme is free from corruption which pays statutory minimum wage. Now the wage-dependents do not have to go to the rich village landlord’s door to request him for employment. Maximum labour and minimum wage will disappear from rural India. This is because wage is easily available under the NREGA. The distress sale of assets by the rural poor for a small amount will find its way out. Despite a high rate of economic growth right from the 1990s, absolute poverty persists in most parts of rural India. The high rate of economic growth has not led to the trickle-down effect to reduce poverty. The starvation deaths, high level of malnutrition among the children and farmers’ suicides are testimony to the fact that rural India is going through a severe crisis. The NREGA can contribute a great deal in solving many of these problems.

The Congress party has got a huge response in the form of votes in areas where the incidence of poverty is very high. The backward/tribal regions with high concentration of SC/ST population, among whom the incidence of poverty is high due to landlessness and land alienation, voted for the Congress due to the obvious reason that they are the main beneficiaries of the NREGA. For them, the NREGA is a surprise gift as historically the backward regions with their high concentration do not benefit from the welfare schemes of the government due to bureaucratic corruption. The NREGA has many strong safeguards to ward off leakages. The mandatory “social audit” has made the scheme more transparent which will help the poor and rural India in the long run by creating durable productive assets.

Political leaders from political parties other than the Congress who implemented the NREGA in a pro-active manner took credits and they have encashed themselves in this election. Those States doing well in the implementation of the NREGA have been able to get the people’s strong support. In Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh the scheme is being implemented effectively. Thus, they received full support of the poor. States with non-Congress governments, such as Bihar and Orissa that have been implementing the NREGA effectively forgetting retributive politics, have got massive support from the rural constituencies in the respective States.

The author is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Shyamlal College, University of Delhi.

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