As I have travelled through the country, it has been rare to find anyone who speaks positively about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) colloquially referred to as the Sau Divsi (100 day) scheme.
Passed as an Act of Parliament in September 2005, the NREG Act aimed to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas of the country by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual labour.
In order of priority, the Act encouraged a focus on :
1) Water Conservation & Water Harvesting
2) Drought proofing through afforestation and tree planting
3) Irrigation canals ( micro and mini irrigation works)
4) Provision of irrigation facilities to SC/ST households
4) Renovation of traditional water bodies including desilting of tanks
5) Land development
6) Flood control and protection works
7) Rural connectivity to provide all weather access
Well conceived, the Act provided for a series of checks and balances to encourage decentralisation and prevent abuse and mis-appropriation of funds such as making Gram Panchayats accountable for identifying projects and executing and supervising work; direct credit of wages to the beneficiaries’ bank or post office account; distribution of wages ideally on a weekly and no later than fortnightly basis; and providing for an unemployment allowance if work could not be provided within 15 days of the request for work.
From a policy perspective therefore, the Act seemed to provide a good framework to meet its objectives.
However feedback in village after village, across all the states I have visited, was negative. Where job cards were available, no more than a few days entries could be found. Villagers complained of payments delayed by several months. In many areas there were allegations of corruption at the VCDC or Gram Panchayat. Level. Some villagers even stated they had received payment for doing no work – adding that Panchayat members withdrew 3-5 times the amount they received for facilitating such payments.
As for outcomes, other than village roads (which I have to say, have by and large been excellent) little was to be seen in the form of durable assets or water harvesting structures. Given that this was the flagship Poverty alleviation program of the Government with a budget allocation of Rs 40,000 crores in 2011-12, I began to actively search for success stories under NREGS.
It was therefore very encouraging to come across an excellent implementation of NREGS in Bankura, West Bengal.
The district of Bankura, located on the eastern edge of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, can be divided into the semi arid and relatively poor western region, and the fertile relatively richer Eastern region. The population of Western Bankura comprises more than 50% of Scheduled Castes & Scheduled tribes (SC/ST), predominantly Santhals. Over 50 % of the families are classified as Below Poverty Line (BPL) and the literacy rate is below the national average at 54%.
The area is almost entirely rain fed, with subsistence agriculture being the main occupation. 65% of farmers are classified as marginal, with land holdings below half a hectare, and 32% as small, with land holdings below 1.5 hectares.
Originally a densely forested area, (21% of the area is still classified as Forest land) growing deforestation has led to a steady decline in soil fertility, due to soil erosion. The Adivasi tribal inhabitants of the region also report that rain patterns seem to have changed. Now classified as a highly drought prone area , migration eastwards from Bankura in the dry season, to the Burdhwan and Hooghly districts of W Bengal, but also to other parts of the country, traditionally exceeds 50% of the adult population. The saying in the region is “like our water, our people flow each year to the east “
Should they be unable to migrate, the only other livelihood option, (typically undertaken by women) is scouring river beds for stones, breaking these into smaller pieces and selling them for road construction work @ Rs 5 per “jhudi” (small bunch of stones – typically in a circle of diameter of 3 ft).
In short, a region inured to tremendous hard ship and back breaking work.
The success of the NREGS scheme in Bankura (now also extended to the districts of Purulia and West Midnapur), viewed in the above context is all the more remarkable.
For the first time on my journey, I was able to see job cards that reflected close to 100 days work and bank accounts that reflected corresponding payments. More importantly, in all the villages I visited, there were water bodies that had been constructed by local villagers under NREGS : large village ponds, smaller village tanks (Hapas) and tiny seepage tanks – as a consequence of which farmers were undertaking SRI cultivation of paddy, and growing vegetables and lentils on land, which otherwise would have lain fallow.
Most inspiring of all, was the very innovative scheme of Mango orchards and Social Forestry, whereby landless women formed Self Help Groups (SHGs) to lease barren land for 25 years, under a crop sharing scheme, and used NREGS funds to treat the land and plant orchards and timber. The pride on the face of these women as they showed me their orchards, was testimony to the fact that proper execution and a focus on Outcomes, can convert an Employment guarantee scheme into a meaningful program that creates Durable Assets which provide sustainable Livelihoods for the poor.
Much of the credit for the Bankura experiment goes to the NGO Pradan, who have been working in the region since the mid 90s on Integrated Natural Resource Management (INRM) and Livelihood enhancement.
Through their bi-partisan and apolitical approach they had won the trust of not just the local communities, but also District, Block and Village level Govt officials, as also the elected representatives of the various Panchayati Raj Institutions (Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads).
In 2007 with the assistance of an enlightened Block Development Officer (BDO) by the name of Babulal Mahatao, and the blessings of the local PRIs, they conducted a pilot, to combine the power of NREGS, with the principles of INRM.
In the Hirabandh block of Bankura district, they selected 3 villages under the Gopalpur Gram Panchayat, for comprehensive water conservation and harvesting works. To achieve lasting results works were planned to suit the topography of the land.
Land in the Bankura district is locally classified as upland (Taand), Medium upland (Baid), Medium lowland ( Kanali) and Lowland (Sol). Generally the higher the land, the poorer the soil quality, and therefore the poorer it’s inhabitants.
In order to ensure the buy-in of the entire village, including richer and more powerful farmers, but also to address water conservation on a long term basis, Pradan recommended a comprehensive Ridge to valley, water conservation and harvesting process. However work was prioritised from Upland to lowland treatment (i.e poorer to richer).
In the Uplands, the land lease scheme for orchards and timber described above, was implemented along with water conservation treatment to reduce the velocity of water run off. Described as the 30 : 40 model, 30 feet bundhs were built along the slope, and 40 ft bundhs were built across the slope thus ensuring water velocity was reduced. The area that was dug out to provide mud for the bundhs, became a water reservoir. Soil erosion was thus reduced, and moisture content of the soil increased. The Orchards and timber plantations, further helped to bind the soil in addition to creating a durable asset for the women who leased the land. Until production started, women practised inter cropping between plants growing vegetables that were an additional source of income for them. A win win on many counts !
For the Midlands they conceived the widespread implementation of the 5 % Individual Benefit scheme. Recognising that small and marginal farmers could rarely afford the cost of pumping and transporting water from the village pond to their small plots, they planned the construction of several water tanks (Hapas) dug on 5 % of the farmers own land. As the soil in the region is rocky, water retention is good, and rain water is stored in these tanks. While all those who work on digging the Hapa are paid under NREGS (@ Rs 136 per day), the farmer on whose land the Hapa is dug, acquires a permanent and valuable irrigation source. As a saturation approach was planned at the outset, villagers had clear sight of when their plots would be covered and there were no tensions or jealousies in the community. As workers were also owners of the asset, the quality of work that I observed was uniformly good.
In the Lowlands, small seepage tanks were constructed, which filled through seepage of ground water resources, providing farmers in the lowlands with a small but almost perennial source of water.
The success of these schemes, and the buy-in of villagers, ensured that the pilot started being replicated across the district. Pradan was chosen as the facilitating agency for NREGS in Bankura.
The results have been impressive. From 2008 to 2012 a total of Rs 150 million has been spent on INRM related NREGS work in the Bankura district. Over 5500 ST families, in 119 villages, have been provided with 8.3 million man days of work. Equally important 3600 small water bodies (Hapas and seepage tanks) have been constructed. In the Hirbandh block alone approx 100 hectares of mango orchards have been planted.
More impressive than these statistics, is the impact on the villagers of Bankura. Though still very poor, there was a sense of deep pride and dignity, about the women I met. As they welcomed me into their homes and offered me their hospitality, many shared the same stories. Just 2 or 3 years ago, they said, they would not have had the ability to offer me anything. Today the combination of NREGS wages for works in their own village, in addition to the incremental income generated from vegetables, mangoes, etc had made it possible to offer a stranger hospitality.
As they shared their dreams and fears, several said that all that they wished for, was not to have to leave their homes again, in search of water, food or employment. In 2010, when the region faced a major drought, a mass scale migration was feared. Instead, due to the availability, howsoever limited, of water, and the employment guarantee under NREGS, there was almost no migration from the District.
The Bankura experiment has filled me with hope. It proves that NREGS can be successfulm and is worthy of emulation across the country.
It also shows that there is scope for Innovation : if the demand for work can be combined with projects that are optimised to meet local needs, then Sustainable livelihoods, Durable assets and Water security are all Outcomes that are possible.