In his Budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely had proudly announced:

“Our government has made a conscious effort to reorient MGNREGA to support our resolve to double farmers’ income…The target of five lakh farm ponds and 10 lakh compost pits announced in the last Budget from MGNREGA funds will be fully achieved. In fact, against five lakh farm ponds, it is expected that about 10 lakh farm ponds would be completed by March 2017. During 2017-’18, another five lakh farm ponds will be taken up.”

The measure, Jaitley said, would help make villages more resilient to drought.

Apart from the fact that this inadvertently disproves the prime minister’s 2015 statement on the futility of rural employment scheme, the achievement of asset creation targets set by the central government should hardly be a matter of pride. Moreover, as has been seen in Jharkhand, top-down decision-making on works to be undertaken as part of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is causing much disaffection.

Building participation and reliance

The rural employment guarantee act, passed by the previous United Progressive Alliance government, stated that “every Gram Panchayat shall, after considering the recommendations of the Gram Sabha and the Ward Sabhas, prepare a development plan and maintain a shelf of possible works to be taken up under the Scheme as and when demand for work rises”.

The premise here is that people of the village know best what public works are required to enhance their livelihoods and fulfill their infrastructural needs. Also, when projects are implemented according to people’s needs, there is a high degree of ownership towards them, which goes a long way in ensuring that the projects are completed in time and are done well.

In many states, the benefits of MGNREGA schemes have been largely cornered by the local elite. To address this gap, in 2014-’15 and 2015-’16, the Ministry of Rural Development instructed states to carry out an Intensive Participatory Planning Exercise in the 2,500 most backward blocks of the country. Under this initiative, people were trained to help gram sabhas plan for projects under MGNREGA in a more inclusive manner and with a better understanding of the wide range of schemes that can be taken up under the programme.

Many states made good use of this initiative. However, last year, soon after the exercise was concluded across the country, the rural development ministry imposed targets for the construction of 33.39 lakh individual household latrines, 12.37 lakh farm ponds, 10.82 lakh compost pits and 63,500 Anganwadi centres.

People’s plans ignored

However, as was seen in Jharkhand, as a result of such an approach, initiatives planned by the villagers are often neglected or sidestepped in the quest of meeting targets.

In the last financial year, Jharkhand combined the Intensive Participatory Planning Exercise with the Gram Panchayat Development Plan, a local governance initiative where villagers decide how money allocated by the government should spent on development works. A state-wide campaign, Yojana Banao Abhiyan, was organised to help people plan projects that would be implemented through MGNREGA, with given to the gram panchayats.

The campaign emphasised on the integrated natural resource management for enhancing rural livelihoods and planning schemes such as animal husbandry sheds for the landless households.

Chief Minister Raghubar Das too participated in the planning exercises of several villages. As a result of the campaign, 10 lakh MGNREGA schemes were planned across Jharkhand, to be implemented in 2016-’17. These included the construction of farm ponds, sheds, wells, levelling of agricultural land, construction of bunds, kuccha roads and drains, among others.

Although villagers had planned to build 1.28 lakh farm ponds in Jharkhand in 2016-’17, the state government arbitrarily decided to construct six lakh ponds by the end of the financial year. To meet this target, it decided to construct five farm ponds in each of the state’s 32,000-odd villages by June 15 and the rest after the monsoon.

Villages where no farm ponds were planned under the Yojana Banao Abhiyan were told to conduct “special” gram sabhas to select households whose land could be used to build these water harvesting structures, so that the government targets could be met. Villagers were placated by assuring them that the other schemes they had planned would be implemented later in the year. Under pressure to fulfill the targets, many farms ponds were constructed in villages that had no need for these or in households that did not want the structures.

To accelerate the construction of the farm ponds, many of them were reportedly made using machines, which is banned under MGNREGA. Several hastily dug farm ponds were washed away in the rain, a waste of the effort and resources put into their construction.

Tweaking information

By early June, the state government had started ordering the local administration to show constructed farm ponds as “complete” in NREGASoft, a management information system where data about the various projects are uploaded online. Under pressure, MGNREGA functionaries also categorised as “complete” farm ponds on which work had not even begun or was incomplete.

Thousands of farm ponds for which wages still had to be paid to workers were also shown as complete (it is not possible to pay workers if the project has been marked complete on NREGASoft). The premature closing of schemes left a staggering number of workers without wages and grossly exaggerated the number of completed projects.

Many schemes planned by people, such as land levelling, bunding, poultry sheds, goat shed and pucca cattle platforms, could have been constructed in the monsoon, when work on the farm ponds was halted. However, using unofficial channels such as WhatsApp, the rural development ministry issued instructions to states to cut back on work under MGNREGA given that it was a drought year and funds were low. The Jharkhand government thus made little effort to ensure implementation of these schemes.

Since December 2016, the state administration has once again been under pressure to complete the target of 20 farm ponds per village. The rural development ministry has been breathing down the state to meet its targets for other schemes of their choosing as well. As a result, local functionaries are being instructed to collect lists of households willing to farm ponds, toilets or compost pits with little regard to the legal requirement of holding gram sabhas to select MGNREGA schemes.

There is much resentment among people for being forced to construct schemes as per the diktats of the central and state government. Many Gram Panchayat members have written to the MGNREGA Commissioner of the state to request him to instruct their Block Development Officer to sanction schemes of their choice as well.

Worrying trend

Although these observations are from Jharkhand, the experience is likely to be similar in other states as well. Imposing certain types of MGNREGA schemes on people not only violates the employment guarantee act, but also the legislation on Pachayati Raj that push for self-governance.

The Centre also seems to be clandestinely shifting a part of the burden of creating infrastructure under various central schemes, like the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana for farm productivity, Swacch Bharat Mission and the Integrated Child Development Services programme, on to MGNREGA, by assigning targets for the construction of farm ponds, compost pits, latrines and Anganwadi centres.

By once again declaring a target of five lakh ponds for 2017-’18, the Centre has chosen to ignore this breach of legislation and the anger among people.

This new trend of deciding from New Delhi what assets the employment guarantee act will be used for is a part of the growing centralisation of MGNREGA that is causing much havoc on the ground.

The author works on MGNREGA in Jharkhand.