The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a law passed in India in 2005 by the Congress Party that guarantees 100 days of paid labor to every adult member of rural households, has been the subject of enormous attention. It has been lauded for its initiative and criticized as another inefficient welfare program. Recent analysis, including a widely published AP article a few days ago, is shining a positive light on the legislation. It seems that NREGA, while expensive and imperfect, has been effective in reducing poverty across a wide swath of rural India, and has changed numerous lives for the better. As the program continues, civil society and government can do a great deal to improve its efficiency and impact.
The article that brought newfound attention on NREGA was an AP article published a few days ago entitled “One Indian Village Wins Freedom with Job Program” by Ravi Nessman. The article describes the wretched conditions in which the residents of the small town of Pipari, a small town 180 kilometers north of Lucknow, lived in before the job program:
For as long as anyone can remember, the people of Pipari have lived as virtual slaves.
The wealthy, upper-caste landlord forced them to work his fields for almost nothing, gave them loans at impossible interest rates, controlled their access to government welfare and held the police in his pocket.
They were dalits, the lowest caste, with houses made of cattle dung, clothing in tatters and barely enough food for a meal and a half a day. They were trapped below the bottom, serfs in an age-old system of exploitation that few in rural India dared question.
The “world’s largest social welfare program” helped them change their reality. The article describes how the residents demanded work under the new law in 2006, but local officials did not register them for work out of fear it would undermine their power. However, the local residents were emboldened by the law, and spent months fiercely protesting until they received their entitled work and pay.
The program has had a chain effect, allowing rural workers to use their earnings for savings instead of taking loans from the usurious landlord, and forcing the landlord to double wages to compete with the new workfare. They are able to send children to school and put food on the table, and the article ends on an inspiring note:
The men don’t pedal rickshaws in Kanpoor anymore, but stay home with their families and their fields. The women are earning money of their own for the first time. The villagers are even discussing taking on the next most powerful person in the area, the man who runs the government food shop, whom they accuse of stealing their subsidized sugar ration.
As for Shukla (the landlord), they still defer to him, but rebel in small ways. When he tells them to do work for him, they do what is convenient and ignore the rest, they said. And they have stopped touching his feet, giving him a little salute instead.
“He still acts like a king, but we don’t consider him a king anymore,” said Harpal Gautam, 37. “His rights and our rights are equal.”
The story paints a nice picture of NREGA, but is the story an anomaly or reflective of the program’s overall success? General consensus from various media and scholarly examinations seems to determine that the program has problems that need to be fixed, but, on the whole, has been surprisingly successful, especially considering the low expectations for most Indian government social welfare programs. Continue reading