Mahavir Parhaiya’s household in the remote village of Lanka in Latehar district of Jharkhand is bustling with activity. They are busy working on setting up a mango plantation on what was once a barren plot near their house, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – which guarantees 100 days of employment in a year to rural families. There is a lot of work to be done: pits to be dug, saplings to be planted, plants to be watered, fences to be constructed, and a careful eye to be kept on the growing plants for signs of disease. Phulkumari Devi, heavily pregnant, spends the day fetching water from a nearby river to water the saplings. Kael Parhaiya keeps track of the work and takes down the attendance of workers. Amardayal, a member of a Cluster Facilitation Team that provides technical support, exhorts the family to complete the work.

As his name indicates, Mahavir Parhaiya is a member of the Parhaiya tribe, which has been designated a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group”. As a community still largely dependent on hunting and gathering for survival, they are the ideal beneficiaries of livelihood support through the employment guarantee legislation. The remoteness of the village, rampant illiteracy, the near absence of basic public services, and dependence on an ever-shrinking forest for their livelihood translates into dismal avenues for work and betterment. They are often extremely exploited and work as bonded labourers. For them to now be taking up a risky and complex investment, like a mango plantation, on their land is indicative of just how far they’ve come.

The employment guarantee Act had no small role to play in this. Even if the law is routinely violated, it provides a legislative framework that, if followed, has the potential to deliver massive gains to some of the most impoverished people in the world. Looking more closely at Mahavir Parhaiya’s family and the plantation, there are three tangible gains – an increase in bargaining power fuelled by a rights-based framework, supplementary income through wages, and an asset that provides a route for an investment.

A pregnant Phulkumari Devi fetches water from a nearby river to water the mango saplings in the plot near her home in Jharkhand's Lanka village.

Responsibilities and gains

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was initially conceived only for public works on community land, but subsequently, projects on private land were allowed for clearly defined categories. Since such works lead to the creation of an asset for a household, slightly better off people who would otherwise be unlikely to do manual work on community land scramble for these projects. Intended beneficiaries like Mahavir Parhaiya lose out.

Poorer families are also hesitant to take up these projects on their own small pieces of land. The nature of the implementation of the law has grown increasingly technocratic, and they don’t want to get stuck making countless trips to the block office. Their responsibility towards maintenance and upkeep is also significant. The mango plantation has 80 saplings, along with chillies and tomatoes, all of which need to be watered daily and closely monitored for disease. The family has to commit to a steady investment of time and person-days for it.

All of this has to be overcome for a family to volunteer to take up work on their land. Once they do, the benefits are plenty. First, as opposed to the usual culture of getting work only for a few days or weeks at a time, a mango plantation opens up sustained employment activities for a period of three years. Second, as economist Jean Dreze hypothesises, a mango plantation is perhaps one of the highest returns on investment among works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The plants will yield fruit for approximately 30 years, which Mahavir Parhaiya can sell in the market or use as he wishes. Third, engaging with the administration on their rights builds up the assertive political capacity of workers. This is the institutional change that the Act is designed to bring about.

Kael Parhaiya keeps track of the work at the mango plantation and takes down the attendance of workers.

State-side story

While Mahavir Parhaiya’s mango plantation is hugely encouraging, it cannot be said to be representative of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act across the country. Government plantations have a notorious reputation of quickly dissolving into scams. It requires considerable state capacity to plan, execute, review and monitor plantations. The Rural Development Department of the government of Jharkhand has invested in technical expertise to build this state capacity. It has brought in independent technical experts on horticulture, rural development and so on. It has also implemented with gusto a project funded by the Ministry of Rural Development – the Cluster Facilitation Team Project. This project provides technical support via civil society organisations to fill the crucial gap at the field level, to plan and execute works.

According to Manas Mandal, a technical expert with the department, there are several rounds of consultation to arrive at a workable model. As a result, government orders focus heavily on the selection of the right beneficiary (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group family) and the correct patch of land (fertile, irrigated). It also outlines in detail the material procurement, aspects that are usually deliberately ignored. Through the entire exercise, the technical experts and Cluster Facilitation Teams provide indispensable practical support to the block administration. This helps the field functionaries enormously as they can informally clear doubts and don’t resort to window dressing for bureaucratic superiors.

Amardayal is a “social mobilisor” of the Cluster Facilitation Team and an activist with the MGNREGA Sahayta Kendra in Manika block of Latehar district. Given the history of the community here being repeatedly misled and abused by contractors and government intermediaries, he says the people’s lack of trust in government projects is huge and the chances of projects being abandoned high. He worked hard to bring down their reluctance and reassure them through the process.

Amardayal, a member of a Cluster Facilitation Team, worked hard to convince the Parhaiya family to undertake the mango plantation project on their land.

Now, word of the mango plantation has spread within Manika, and relatives of Mahavir Parhaiya in other gram panchayats are volunteering to do similar work. Based on the feedback from these pilots, the state government plans to expand such projects to 3,000 acres this financial year.

National implications

So what does this mango plantation tell us about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act? Providing families in Lanka village with work, and a route for investment through an asset, is a big boon. Because of deeply pervasive social inequities, families with no alternatives are invariably left out from building assets for their use. Therefore, the role of independent facilitation and technical expertise is needed, and at present, greatly undervalued. The outreach and facilitation work at the level of the family is important to begin to address layers of marginalisation. So is the leveraging of available technical resources to design and execute useful works. Recent academic literature points to the need to substantially increase the capacity of state functionaries of the poorest states, to really deliver on the employment guarantee and its entitlements.

This plantation is another retort to the red herring of “no assets” that is repeatedly brought up. Nonetheless, an independent empirical national study on the productivity of works under the employment guarantee law will be welcomed by all quarters. However, the really urgent issue is the blatant flouting of the Act, most egregiously through inadequate funding that undermines the legal entitlement of the right to work, and the atrocious delays and complications in wage payments.

In fact, everything happening in Lanka is just following the legal framework of the Act: decentralising planning to select useful works, sanctioning of appropriate work for intended beneficiaries, and building assets for livelihood support. In a climate where legal entitlements for socio-economic rights are constantly flouted, this exercise shows what the Act can provide if it is followed, to systemically address poverty, unlike any other socio-economic framework in the country.

Projects like the mango plantation require a lot of time and effort. The 80 saplings, along with the chillies and tomatoes that are grown, all need to be watered daily and closely monitored for disease.

All photographs courtesy Inayat Sabhikhi.