The Strenuous Activism Behind MGNREGA – In Conversation With Ashish Ranjan


MGNREGA has been a controversial scheme, politically, since its inception in the year 2006. Some politicians has referred to it as a means for menial jobs to poor, while some others claim it as a symbol of erstwhile UPA government’s failure. But undeniably it is the only employment scheme that directly benefits the unemployed poor and downtrodden. It is quite evident that the government has a very few arms to reach to the poorest directly, namely the PDS, MGNREGA, and the direct cash transfers under different social security schemes.

Nonetheless, the dissonance between the ground reality and the political jargons, criticisms has become a banality. To understand how the scheme has fared on ground over the course of time, we looked into the state of Bihar (the state with one of the largest number of daily wagers) through the lens of an activist, Ashish Ranjan.

Ashish Ranjan is an activist from Kamayani, Bihar, who is a founding member of the Union, named Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan. He actively worked in Bihar to make the entitlements given under MGNREGA Act a reality. Besides, he is working for different campaigns being run across the nation regarding Right to Information Act, Right to Food, etc. and is the National Convenor for an organization named National Alliance for People’s Movement. For the past years, he is also working for the upliftment of deprived section of society.

His work for MGNREGA started in 2008 when he along with the famous economist-cum-activist, Jean Dreze, conducted a survey to assess the scheme in the six Hindi speaking states including Bihar. It was then that the survey’s findings were brought amongst people in Patna, and Jan Jagran Abhiyan, later changed into Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, was started to mobilize people, and educate them regarding the functioning of scheme and the entitlements under it.

With time, the structural problems were recognized in the scheme. For instance, there is 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 70-80 rupees. Had the MGNREGA wages and minimum wages been combined, the problem wouldn’t have arisen. Further, the scheme, like any other scheme, was plagued with large scale corruption at different levels, and its capacity to employ people was lower than required in Bihar which is a home to the largest number of migrant labourers.

The Panchayati Raj institutions, which are paramount in the implementation of this scheme, lack the MGNREGA Commissioner, project management staff and engineers. Even though the posts have been created, the recruitment is seldom done. Even today, the MGNREGA Commissioners are hired for part-time. Further, the implementation of scheme lacked political will, and no excitement was shown by the government towards it.  “Keeping in mind the scale of workers who migrate from Bihar, had there been a political will and creative management for the scheme, the outcomes would have been phenomenal”, says Ashish.

In Bihar, when the data is sought for the average no. of days for which the registered workers (workers who have worked even for a single day) are employed in a year, it comes out to be 40-45 days. There is barely any worker who is employed for 100 days, as promised under the Act. Thus, the capacity of the scheme is lower in the state. Basis the problem of heavy rains and floods in the northern Bihar, the period of employment is not suffice.

Further, the budget sanctioned for Bihar under the scheme is not sufficient. For the states like Andhra Pradesh, the budget sanctioned has been approximately 5000 crores. However, for Bihar, it has ranged between 2500-3000 crores over the years, when it should have had the highest budget.

Ashish and his team organized the common masses under the Union, Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, wherein the Union demands for work on 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 the 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. In the absence of Union and receipt system, it is on the discretion of Gram Sabha whether to officially and actually register the work seeker and who to register or not. Sometimes the project is completed with the help of machines in a limited time, and a fake list of labourers is generated. Many times the individual asking for work is told on face to have been mentioned on the work list, however, when the worker revisits he is told that the work was allotted to him but he was unavailable.

Without the Union, the authorities would not register the demand for work of individuals. Because once the demand is registered in the MIS system, the work is bound to be allotted.

There are times, when the work is not allotted due to halting of projects and other inefficiencies even after the demand is registered. At other times when the demand is forcibly registered, the Mukhya of Panchayati Raj allots contentious projects which are bound to halt in a day or two. In these cases, the Union’s management, on behalf of all the workers, takes the issue to the higher authorities, and the project starts. Such an action is improbable on account of individuals pursuing it.

When people come together and raise their demands in an organized manner under the entitlements provided by the law, as is the case under MGNREGA, the authorities are bound to register their demands. And this is what the Union has achieved. The Union has built social equity over the years.

However, with success come its own challenges. There are divisive forces who work on to break the Union. There had been times when the local MGNREGA authorities had declared the Union leaders as Ultra Left to dismiss their fight. “Once a person is categorized and stereotyped, his opinions and fight are no longer considered and pondered upon”, says Ashish.

Ashish believes that movements to attain what is entitled in the law, as is the case with MGNREGA Act, possess a handle, in the form of law, to drive the struggle ahead. However, these movements have a limitation that they are not transformational on account of limited scope of what the law pertains to. However, he believes that for any movement to succeed, the mass participation of people and the commitment of leadership is imperative.

Fareed Mohammad Ansari is a management student at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad




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