Breaking Rocks as ‘Social Empowerment’? –
Thoughts on the Rural Employment Scheme MGNREGS, India -
For the International Debate on Work Schemes and Crisis Regimes

*** Intro
*** General Information on MGNREGS
*** MGNREGS on the Background of (Rural) Crisis in India

*** (Re-)Productive Functions of MGNREGS
* Reproduction of Labour Force
* Reproduction of Rural Class Divisions
* Regulation of General Wage Levels
* Regulation of Migration
* Integration of Proletarians as Individual ‘Citizens’
* Internal Re-figuration of the Global and Local State
* Invigorating the Dialog between Rural Proletariat and State

*** Current Struggles within MGNREGS and Preliminary Conclusions for the Communist Movement

————————

*** Intro

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in India is the world’s largest public work scheme. [1] In 2011 around 45 million workers were directly employed, half of them women. By decree, the scheme consists of labour intensive work, e.g. breaking rocks and digging earth for rural road construction.

With the deepening of the global crisis, the debate about ‘state-managed work schemes’ acquires a relevance, which goes beyond the national framework. [2] In symbolic terms the ‘multi-national’ character of MGNREGS was expressed during a recent G20 summit, when labour ministers applauded the ‘Indian’ work-scheme as an example of ‘innovative legislation’.

One of the features of modern work-schemes, which distinguishes them from labour schemes of the past, is the claim that they will strengthen the ‘community’, rather than being a mere work-house for the poor. Centrally designed work schemes are supposed to invigorate the local state and local ‘civil society’ structures – this reaches from the idea of the ‘Big Society’ community initiatives in the UK, to the gram panchayat (village council) and ‘social audit’ projects in India.

Whether seeing the scheme ‘as a battlefield for a rights-based movement’ or ‘critically co-managing’ them – there is a lack of debate on the left. I.e. one which could locate these schemes within wider capitalist re-production, the current crisis and unrest, and the state’s attempt to deal with the latter.

The starting point of a critique of the work scheme has to be the experience of workers themselves – and their fluid existence between being both ‘surplus population’ and ‘productive work-force’. In the following we summarise some material for the wider debate.

*** General Information on MGNREGS

MNREGS is not the first employment scheme in India. The announcements of ‘poverty alleviating’ schemes, such as the Employment Assurance Scheme (EAS), Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) and National Food for Work Programme, followed more or less synchronously the cycles of (global) crisis: from the first dent in the early 1960s to the early 1970s, when the ‘garibi hatao’-campaign Indira Gandhi’s preceded the more drastic ‘poverty eradication’ schemes of the State of Emergency in form of mass slum evictions and (forced) sterilisation schemes, particularly targeting the rural poor. Since the 1970s the ‘employment schemes’ grew in size, due to an increase of a rural population mainly dependent on wage work and a parallel reduction of labour input necessary for agricultural production as a result of mechanisation etc..

It is no coincidence that the introduction of MGNREGS in 2006 was paralleled by a similarly far-reaching ‘welfare reform’ in Brazil. The Bolsa Familia, a type of social benefit payment for ‘the poor’, is said to be the world largest ‘conditional cash transfer program’. It is less important that both schemes were announced by ‘labour’-governments (PT/UPA), but rather that they have a similar origin in the particular character of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) boom at the time. This boom saw on one hand a considerable influx of foreign cash (through ‘liberalisation’ of investment regulations etc.), boosting state budgets and nominal GDP; but on the other hand it was described as ‘jobless growth’, increasing the number of under/unemployed in need of state benefits.

Under MGNREGS every ‘officially poor’ family in rural India is entitled to 100 days of paid work – for one family member. According to law, employment is supposed to start 15 days after handing in of an application, under condition that a defined number of people (currently between 20 and 50) are enrolled in the scheme in the local village. In order to apply for the scheme there are certain formal requirements (registration in the village, job card, in some cases a bank account). If the local village council is not able to provide work after 15 days the applicants are entitled to unemployment allowance. It is up to the (individual federal) state government to decide the amount of unemployment allowance, but it must not be less than 1/4 of the minimum wage for the first 30 days, and not less than 1/2 the minimum wage thereafter.

In 2010-11, officially between 40 and 45 million people were employed on MGNREGS worksites. Since the introduction in 2006, the share of women increased from around 40 to now 50 per cent – which indicates that MGNREGS is mainly an ‘additional income’, an extra-wage for the household. According to a survey in around 1,000 villages in 2011, MGNREGS contribution to household income through wages was 16.5 per cent in Rajasthan, 9.62 per cent in Andhra and 8.39 per cent in Bihar. If we assume an average of six members per household and take the household as a basic economic/wage unit, than MGNREGS entered into the income of around 250 million people, out of a total rural population of somewhere around 800 million. In 2011, the central state allocated around 8,9 billion USD of its budget for MGNREGS, 3.7 per cent out of a total budget of 240 billion.

Currently, the official daily wage under MGNREGS is 120 Rs per day, around 2.7 USD. The central government pays the wages and 3/4 of material cost and some percentage of administrative cost. The federal state governments meet the cost of unemployment allowance and 1/4 of material cost. In most Indian states the MGNREGS wage lies above the minimum wage fixed by the individual states, in about half a dozen states the local minimum wage is higher. There is an ongoing constitutional back and forth about this fact. There are other legally fixed conditions, such as a crèche for children of MGNREGS workers, transport facilities etc..

MGNREGS is supposed to be labour intensive, and it is so by decree. For the scheme a 60:40 wage and material ratio has been legally fixed and the usage of machinery is banned, so is (officially) the use of contractors as middlemen. The work performed is supposed to be ‘developmentally’ beneficial to ‘the village’, in form of road works, irrigation infrastructure like wells, canals, ponds etc.. The main work performed is road construction. MGNREGS work is allowed on private land of small and middle peasants. The management of the scheme lies mainly in the hands of the gram panchayat (village council), the lowest level of state power. There is a formally described role of so-called social audits, composed of administration and ‘civil society organisations’, which are supposed to check the correct implementation of MGNREGS. The following report of a MGNREGS worker summarises well the main social aspects of the scheme:

NREGS Worker
(Faridabad Majdoor Samachar – March 2009)
“I am from an artisan family from a village in Mathura district. I have an ITI qualification (two-three years of technical apprenticeship). I have done my internship. In order to find work I roamed Mathura, Agra, Ahmedabad, Gurgaon and Faridabad. I started work in a factory in Faridabad, but I was ‘given a break’ (kicked out in order to avoid having to give a permanent contract) after six months. After the lessons of having been unemployed for some time and the trouble it means, when I got unemployed again, I was ready to apply for a job with the NREGS.
The first work started in July 2008: digging earth out of a pond for the agriculture panchayat (village council/authority). The second job was in August and September: digging earth out from an irrigation canal of the irrigation department. In total I worked for 21 days, the documents showed 22 days. The work was done by 35 workers, but the documents showed 50 workers – the other 15 were sitting at home and faked attendance. A lot of earth moving work, all measured in cubic meters – done by us 35 workers instead of the shown 50 workers. No payment in November and December. They said that they will open a giro bank account for transferral. They took 20 to 50 Rs in order to open this account. When the first payment was due they kept the 200 Rs in this account. At the time of the second payment they also kept the 200 Rs “for keeping it in the account” – as some kind of fee.
After a significant delay our wages ‘arrived’. We had to sign with our finger-print and money was given to the local temporary school teacher and the official from Gram Vikas (Agriculture Institution). From that money 800 was paid to us 35 and 400 to those who stayed at home. The same happened with the second payment, just that this time they asked for 50 Rs instead of 20 Rs for expenses. When we resisted they started to threaten us – “you will come here again and want to work, and then we will see”. Our pay roll was kept with the guy from the bank, our job card was with the school teacher.
We had been promised a daily wage of 100 Rs, we were actually paid 70 Rs and only after several months of hassle. In the meantime we all took time off from the NREGS work, so that when there was gardening work offered in January, no worker in the village would lay their hands on it. The school-teacher and the official from Gram Vikas gave us to understand that we should give money to the area, district and block officials, because they have to drive around a lot on the motorcycles in order to arrange things for us – which obviously costs money. In December, when our wages were distributed, the school-teacher received his outstanding wages from the government – he had not been paid for the last ten months.”

The fact that the scheme had to be ‘enforced’ against the opposition of ‘neo-liberal hardliners within the political class and that, although legally sanctioned, hardly any of the legally determined conditions are met – e.g. that the average amount of days of labour in 2011 was not 100 (as legally statutory), but merely around 40 days – also contributes to the prevailing view amongst the left, that MGNREGS is a question of ‘proper implementation’, of ‘defending entitlements’. Before analysing this view, we first have to see MGNREGS in the wider context of capitalist development and the crisis management by the state.

*** MGNREGS on the Background of (Rural) Crisis in India

If we see the actual form and content of MGNREGS, the actual work performed (labour intensive construction of infrastructure), it resembles very much situations, which in other times of capitalist history required rather unfree forms of mediation, e.g. in form of semi-bonded labour or actually forced labour. The fact that MGNREGS (breaking rocks for wages which hardly guarantee reproduction) does not need armed guards or barbed-wire and can appear as a ‘welfare benefit’ and a ‘legal right or entitlement’ says much about the enormous brutality of rural poverty in India in 21st century capitalism. No one will deny the fact that the rural crisis in India is aggravating. According to official figures 238 million proletarians in India are undernourished, the majority of the rural poor has to survive on less than 20 RS a day. Since 1995, more than 253,000 farmers have committed suicide.

In order to determine the quality of MGNREGS we would first have to determine the origin of modern rural poverty in India. The question is whether ‘the misery’ on the countryside is result of an insufficient ‘productivity’ in terms of material production of goods (material output) or rather an expression of a ‘produced crisis’ in capitalist terms: increased general dependency on market and money economy (commodities, wages), increase in productivity of social labour, declining prices due to relative overproduction, further rationalisation (use of machinery etc.) leading to an increase in ‘relative surplus population’ (unemployment) and therefore to aggravated poverty.

If we look at both urban and rural relations in the ‘global north’, then the current global crisis openly questions a ‘developmentalist view': everyone can see that falling living standards in the global north are not due to a lack of productivity, but due to a crisis of profitability (and therefore of employment) due to an increase of productivity (‘rationalisation’). If, in the face of this crisis, developmentalist in South Asia still uphold that a further integration into the market (‘diversification’, small business models, micro-finance etc.) and an increase in productivity (either through more elaborate agro-technology or through sustainable empowerment of ‘female resources’ on eco-cooperatives) will alleviate rural poverty, they do this by referring to the specific difference between agricultural development in the north and south.

We want to have a look at this question, because essentially, the idea that the rural poor will be able to make use of MGNREGS in order to return to ‘small scale market farming’ or ‘small scale artisan work’ is the main ‘progressive’ gloss on MGNREGS. Or in other words: MGNREGS can only be portrayed as ‘progressive’ by both state and civil-society leftists if the reason for the brutal poverty is seen in a ‘lack of development’ and MGNREGS not as a ‘permanent workhouse’ for the poor, but as part of ‘productivity development’ which eventually will alleviate poverty and make MGNREGS redundant.

Small Scale Farming and Capitalist Productivity

So what is portrayed as the main peculiarity of (agricultural) development in South Asia? The fact that unlike in the global north average land-holding decreased. During the three decades after 1970, farm size in the United States (US) from 157 to 178 ha. Farm size in India in the same period has declined from 1.84 ha to 1.32 ha (other figures say 1.08 ha). [3] Around 87 per cent of global small land-holdings (below 2 ha) are located in Asia. The two questions which arise consequently are: a) are small land-holdings under given local conditions less productive than large land holdings; b) would an increase in productivity under given conditions (market economy) be a way out of crisis for everyone?

We would claim that the market pressure on small peasants actually has increased productivity above the level of bigger land-holdings and intensified their adaptation to ‘market trends’. “Dyer (1997) argued that the inverse relationship [per hectar productivity increases the smaller the land holding is] is neither a product of superior efficiency on the part of small farms nor is it due to better quality land on the small farms but arises from the desperate struggle of poor peasants for survival” – leading to long-term drop in productivity, because soil gets exhausted by the desperate attempt to squeeze more from it.

In order to do this, small peasants have to invest heavily, double the amount of small land holdings have irrigation facilities (borewells etc.) compared to bigger land holdings. During 2001-02 marginal farmers used 2.6 times the fertiliser used by large farmers. On large farms HYVs (high-yielding varieties) occupied 42 per cent of the area. In the next five years the HYV coverage on marginal and smallholdings increased to 72 per cent and 68 per cent, but their coverage on large farms remained below 50 per cent. In 2001 the per hectare value of crop output was Rs 25,173 at holdings below 0.4 ha. As the farm size increased towards 2 ha, productivity declined to less than Rs 17,000 per hectare. In large farms (4 ha to 10 ha) the value of aggregate crop production declined to Rs 13,500 per hectare.” (Chand etc., EPW June 2011)

Small peasants are also much more desperate to satisfy the needs of the market by ‘diversification’ (horticulture etc.). Does this ‘market adaptation’ save the small peasants? The opposite is true: “the crop that witnessed the most rapid growth in yield in 1990s and 2000s was cotton (ECONOMIC SURVEY, 2010-11). But, ironically, this crop is also the one that led to the largest number of farmer suicides.” (Sanhati) The price decline in cotton and the subsequent bankruptcy of small peasants can also not easily explained by ‘influx of subsidised US cotton’, India has been one of the main exporters to China in recent years: the crisis is largely ‘home grown’, an expression of a contradiction which is as much global as local.

What about general productivity: is there hunger in India because the agricultural production is particularly unproductive? Despite the diversion from food-grain production to non-food cash-crop over the last decades – to a point where in 2007 around 40 per cent of land in India is used for non-food commercial crop – the actual food-grain production still increased:
1960 – 1975 100 million tonnes
1991 – 2009 228 million tonnes

This is confirmed by figures demonstrating that neither the per hectare productivity is particularly low in India (2001):
Rice (kg/ha): 3,370 (India), 4,309 (world average)
Wheat (kg/ha): 2,802 (India), 3,086 (world average)

We can summarise that the rural crisis in India is a capitalist crisis, a crisis of commodity production, not of absolute productivity. The small land holdings are ‘too small’ in terms of market survival, the (total) land is not ‘too small’ in terms of producing goods for (all) people. On this background the developmentalist propaganda that raising productivity and market adaptation will provide a way out for the impoverished masses only speaks the word for an acceleration of the suicidal wheel of ‘individual survival on the market’. Obviously, the very uneven land distribution still remains a field of struggle [4], but it can be seen more as a result of the general problem of commodity production.

What we can see in general terms is a combination of, on one side, a very desperate labour and input intensive ‘market-oriented family farming’ [5], which mainly continues due to the enormous level of self-exploitation; and, on the other side, the further ‘rationalisation’ of large-scale ‘agro and food chains’ (contract farming, sophisticated cooling and transport chains, large-scale retail distribution) as we can in formation in Punjab. [6]

On this background, the current ‘re-discovery’ of small scale farming by the institutions of global governance with the help of NGOs, seems either absurd/helpless or cunning. The revival of ‘small peasantry’ has to be seen in the context of the general crisis: rising unemployment, declining wages, volatile food prices and dwindling state budgets. It only exists as a sub-category of the failing existence as wage workers. It is the regime’s hope that people ‘farm their individual way through the crisis’ – that they stay hungry on their piece of land, blaming themselves and nature, instead of relating to the stark contrast of general global potentials of wealth production and mass misery. Small market peasants tend to kill themselves, while hungry proletarians tend to cause riot – this fact is very much in front of our and their eyes.

We have to see that the contradiction of ‘capitalist productivity’ is even more pronounced in the urban and urban-industrial area – which is supposed to provide an outlet for the impoverished rural masses. The IT-related services in India might create 20 per cent plus of the total income from exports, but they create 0.01 per cent in employment; all major automobile companies in India announced to step up automation in 2012; CNC-computer controlled stitching machines replace the remains of artisan labour all over India – just to name some symbolic examples.

We see an ever-increasing output of commodities requiring a decreasing amount of labour input, leading to mass underemployment and impoverishment – in the face of potential abundance. This is a rather unsophisticated ABC of ‘capitalist contradictions’ and it might seem abstract; but it is this contradiction as an underlying force, which has recently blown up the regimes in Northern Africa and is currently raging in Europe. The unemployed in Egypt or Tunisia had neither possibility to migrate ‘outwards’ nor to ‘fall-back’ into a ‘rural economy. It is on this background of the ‘historical character of poverty’ that we have to debate both the current attempts to revive ‘small scale farming’ and MGNREGS. [7]

*** (Re-)Productive Functions of MGNREGS

Rather than as a jumping board into a better existence as small scale market producer, MGNREGS can be seen as a social valve situated between the market pressure on the agricultural and wider rural sector, which ruins and expels increasing numbers of small peasants and artisans (proletarianisation), and the ‘labour expelling’ pressure of profit production resting on the rural and urban labour market (surplus population). It is a security valve in the sense that it is meant to control proletarian migration and is strategically placed in areas of rural unrest. But it is more than a mere valve, it acts at the same time as a pressure chamber which intends to keep up the pressure on rural and urban labour markets, by making clear that ‘surplus labour’ has to ‘toil hard for a minimal existence’ even in times of overproduction.

In this sense it is not an ‘evil scheme’, but an expression of the absurdity of capitalist productivity and wage labour: a huge modern apparatus, comprising all state levels, supranational developmental institutions, NGOs and other civil society organisations; an apparatus, which uses the most modern technologies (e-government, IT-integrated pay rolls and bio-metric ID-cards) of the current ‘productive forces’, in order to make poor women and men breaking rocks, using – by decree! – the most primitive tools, which have been around for thousands of years. And this absurd fact itself is portrayed as ‘welfare’ as ‘grassroots empowerment’, as a chance for ‘community based democracy’ and as a potential starting point for ‘building an existence’ as peasant or artisan. Back to start.

MGNREGS has a ‘productive function’, the creation of so-called ‘assets’ (rural infrastructure), but this aspect is not in the centre of MGNREGS. The scheme first of all is a scheme of social management. The productive element itself, the actual constructed infrastructure, has also the function of re-imposing divisional lines within the rural class relations. We see following general functions of the scheme:

* Reproduction of Labour Force
* Reproduction of Rural Class Divisions
* Regulation of General Wage Levels
* Regulation of Migration
* Integration of Proletarians as Individual ‘Citizens’
* Internal Re-figuration of the Global and Local State
* Invigorating the Dialog between Rural Proletariat and State

* Reproduction of Labour Force

First of all the existence of the MGNREGS is a proof of the demise of subsistence farming and the level of proletarianisation in rural India. Around 40 per cent of the rural population is landless, around 65 per cent of the income of ‘small peasant” household depend on ‘non-agricultural’ sources (wage work). Under the current condition of underemployment and food price inflation millions are facing starvation.

In the past masses of people actually starved to death in India and they still do in other areas of the world, despite the ability of the ruling elite to prevent this. The major difference between past and present is neither the intrusion of humanism into the minds of the ruling class nor the ‘achievement’ of a ‘right to work’ or ‘right to food’ etc., but that rural India is obviously less isolated from the systemic centres: family members of rural poor work in urban areas, there is a fair amount of rural industrial investment, there are means of communication and transport. Millions of desperate people cannot be just ‘locked away’ in the countryside. The ‘surplus population’ is intertwined with the productive working class, it does not exist in isolation. Last, but not least, the last wave of mass starvation in the 1960s was followed by the emergence of armed insurrection (Naxalites), driven by an alliance of rural poverty and urban class politics.

‘Counter-insurgency’ is not just an abstract or potential aspect of MGNREGS. Politicians don’t get tired of emphasising that the scheme is a direct answer to the ‘biggest internal threat’ – the Maoist uprising in the so-called red corridor, stretching from West-Bengal to Maharashtra. The scheme is over-proportionally located in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa – the main areas of rural unrest. The proto-state Maoist guerillas or parties relate differently to MGNREGS and similar state-run schemes, depending on the area of operation. Whereas in areas such as Telangana the Maoists were one of the few institutions which actually enforced central state programs against the local state representatives, in other areas, where their alliance with the ‘local bourgeoisie’ (construction contractors etc.) was more developed, they opposed the program, justifying their opposition by stating ‘military’ or even more obscure reasons. [8]

To summarise, the fact that starvation exists today is due to the increase of wage/market dependency at a time of over-accumulation related underemployment; the fact that the state sees itself obliged to save the poor from starving is due to the fact that poverty exists very closely linked to the centres of accumulation. But the state does not just want to prevent the poor from starving, the state wants to reproduce the poor as wage labourers and want to reproduce the general conditions of wage labour. Therefore the state does not just ‘pay for the poor’, the poor are supposed to work hard for their minimum wages. Small peasants who barely make ends meet by market farming have to be encouraged to continue to do so by demonstrating that if they join the proletarianised poor, they have to beg to be allowed to break rocks in the heat. Similarly, the rural labourer, who travels from harvest to harvest, working for low wages, has to be shown that the basic principle of capitalism is still based on the compulsion to sell one’s labour power – even if this labour power is as over-abundant as most other commodities.

Obviously, the general contradiction of wage labour does not stop at the door of a ‘state run’ work-scheme – as it didn’t stop at the border of ‘state socialist/capitalist’ regimes either. The fact that workers are surely forced to sell their labour power does not automatically mean that they are then happy to work hard for their meagre income. Subsequently, most state governments in India have shifted the MGNREGS wages to a piece rate system, which is supposed to enforce the desired work discipline – a measure which was also very well known amongst the ‘managing comrades’ of the ‘real socialism’. In Rajasthan, the state with one of the highest degree of implementation and ‘social audit’ (control through NGOs), the government introduced piece rate wage as early as February 2006. The contradiction subsequently changes its form: the struggle now evolves around the question of the definition of rates. [9] Rates have to be defined for different type of soil, tools, workers – and ‘objectiveness’ becomes very blurry, e.g. the official standard rate for excavation in soft soil for 1 cubic metre with a lead of 50 m and a lift of 2 m was 0.2 person days in Tamil Nadu and 0.75 person days in Andhra Pradesh.

If the whole scheme is an expression of absurdity, of the imposition of “primitive labour intensive wage work” in times of underemployment and over-productivity, then the absurdity continues through the ‘burocratization’ of the scheme: in order to administer wage payments, to engage in ever more minute mechanisms of ‘piece rate settings’ and supervision, large amounts of ‘burocratic’ labour emerges in order to rescue the wage form, a whole pyramid of admin-workers, time-keepers, NGO-controlers piles up on the shoulders of the shovel-swinging proletarian woman. On the lowest panchayat state level alone, 10 per cent of the ‘costs’ of MGNREGS go into administration. Here we can see that ‘burocratization’ is not primarily a result of mismanagement or ‘development of a self-interest of the burocrats’, but of ‘social management of wage labour’ itself. If you want to get an impression of this ‘pyramid of labour’, check out this government document on MGNREGS management: gwn48_nrega.

* Reproduction of Rural Class Divisions

The reproduction as reproduction of labour force includes the reproduction of the relation to other classes in the rural areas. Here we focus less on the question of ‘profiteers’ of MGNREGS in from of middlemen, e.g. local politicians or construction contractors, who, in many cases, are one and the same. We refer to the fact that ‘asset creation’ – the construction of roads or irrigation facilities – is more beneficial to the ‘landed’ than to the ‘landless’, the roads are more valuable to the local traders, than to the poor who walk on them.

We can see that, consciously intended by the regime or not, MGNREGS will confirm, if not fortify, the class distinction between those who already have’ assets’, and those who don’t. The small traders and small peasantry, who themselves are under huge systemic pressure (Second Green Revolution, concentration process in local and global retail) see that the state let’s the poor work and create infrastructure which has a at least short-term positive impact on their existence. We can assume that the state is not unaware of this dimension of ‘pleasing the middle-strata’ by making the poor work. This is confirmed by a recent change in the legislation, which now allows MGNREGS work to be performed on private land directly, in particular on cash-crop (horticulture etc.) of small peasants (general section). In other cases the MGNREGS work directly benefits the large-scale capitalist farmers.

Let’s look at the example of the Kalchini Tea Garden, West Bengal. Under the scheme for revival of closed tea garden, MGNREGS jobs were issued to all workers in the closed gardens in late 2010. The work included land development, drainage, irrigation channel, connectivity. From 13 December 2010 to 31 March 2011, all 2003 permanent workers of were put to work under the MGNREGS within the confines of the garden, to construct drainage systems. Workers at the various sites have been paid daily wages ranging between Rs. 30 and 50 on an average – the base wage as tea garden workers had been 65 Rs a day. (source: http://www.radicalsocialist.in)

* Regulation of General Wage Levels

The wage-levels of a state-run employment scheme, which comprises nearly 250 million rural households, will have some kind of impact on the general wage levels, even if it is just in a rather symbolic way of an ‘approximating/regulating guideline’. Advocates of the scheme claim that “As a result of NREGA, market wages increased everywhere as employers had to raise labor rates to keep up with NREGA wages”.
(http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/7832/1/Nayak_womenworkersinindia.pdf)

This claim seems to be confirmed by the complaint of farmers in areas of migrant labour dependent harvests, that due to MGNREGS fewer seasonal migrants make the trip to work in the harvest and that therefore a seasonal shortage of labour arises. The actual numbers (actual total amount of days allocated per year, actual wage levels etc.) question that MGNREGS practically push up wages: in most areas the days allocated will only supplement the ever decreasing days of paid labour people can find during harvest time due to increase of mechanisation or other ‘labour-saving’ mechanisms. On average male rural wage workers find between 100 and 150 days of paid work in the rural areas, which includes seasonal migration – with decreasing tendency. In this sense MGNREGS is rather a supplement. MGNREGS wages may lie above the payment small local peasants pay their agricultural labourers, but the official MGNREGS guideline also states that the work in the scheme is not supposed to clash with harvest and other labour intensive agricultural seasons. Many local studies revealed that MGNREGS jobs are more the bottom-line, if there is actually no other monetary income available:

“Initiated in Raichur in April 2006, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) was intended to provide each household with 100 days of employment (…). Eleven group interviews and surveys of 81 households in six local villages in 2008 and 2010 revealed that each household had received on average slightly less than four days work per annum. Payments were routinely delayed for up to three months (surpassing delays in the payment of agricultural wages), and were often below the stipulated rate. In addition, NREGS work was routinely more intensive and for longer hours than was the norm for casual agricultural labour.” (Pattenden: Migrating Between Rural Raichur and Boomtown Bangalore)

The debate about the wage level of MGNREGS reflect the attempt of the state to establish a ‘dynamic’ minimum wage to a) understand minimum reproduction levels and varies sources of income of the rural poor; b) negotiate different wage levels paid by small and large peasants, also regulating the demise of small peasantry; c) establish wages in relation to different regions in India d) attempt to regulate labour migration. If the current ‘census’ is an attempt to establish a political-sociological overview of the vast proletarian masses in India, then the wage negotiations around MGNREGS can be seen as an attempt to establish an ‘economic’ census of proletarian rural India today.

Here the ‘central state’ acts as the ‘ideal general capitalist’ and finds itself in legal conflict with federal state governments and farmers’ lobbies. Currently the triangle of high-courts, federal and central state has to figure out whether a) there can be a difference between ‘centrally fixed minimum MGNREGS wage’ and ‘regional minimum wage fixed by the individual federal states'; and b) if formally there cannot be a difference, who would have to pay for the consequent regional increase of MGNREGS wages. So far the centre pays MGNREGS wages and regional states would have to prop up these wages if there minimum wages are higher – the limit here being also the considerable indebtedness of the federal states. The legal back-and-forth around this question has to be seen a) as a state-internal argument around the question of control over general and regional economic planning and b) as an expression of the increase of uneven development within India itself.

* Regulation of Migration

“One of the significant objectives of the NREGA is to arrest out-migration of unskilled, landless labour force from the rural areas to urban areas,” Mihir Shah, member of the governmental planning commission. “Where durable assets are created, water conservation happens, agriculture productivity is raised and all this is dovetailed with micro-finance, then out-migration from the area is reduced and people go back to farming or other livelihood created by NREGS.” As we have seen above, the ‘developmental’ capacity of MGNREGS, the possibility to inverse the trends of market farming and to create assets for a new layer of successful market participants, have to be put into question – what remains is the regime’s aim to regulate migration.

Despite relative early emergence of capitalist relations, the rural-urban migration in India happened at much slower pace than in other countries of the global south, even during the first decades after the end of colonial rule. Unlike in China there is no formal restriction of movement as such. Slow pace of rural-urban migration was rather due to the particular integration of the ‘village economy’, which also included forms of unfree labour (debt bondage) intertwined with caste-hierarchies, which prevailed to a significant degree until the 1970s and still persist.

Additionally, rural-urban migration had been curbed by the question of ‘land': the landless often lacked resources to engage in long-term and long-distance migration and those who still owned land saw this as both reason and viable option not to leave for good. Throughout the 1970s the combination of struggle against the old village hierarchies and the further introduction of ‘Green Revolution’ technologies in agriculture, which shortened the need for hired labour, ‘casualised’ the conditions on the countryside. [10]

On this background of an ‘untied labour force’, we can see that cheaper means of transport and communication lead to an accelerated migration – to a point where due to ‘lack of absorption’ in the urban areas it threatens to undermine social stability. The ‘political’ (registered citizenship, fortification of village administration) and ‘economical’ (wage levels) aspects of MGNREGS have to be seen on this background to ‘re-tie’ the mobility of labour to the current needs and limitations of the regime. This does not mean that the aim is to ‘make people stay’ on the countryside, but to discourage permanent urban settlement and to foster – or at least allow – the continuation of the ‘migrating status’. The ‘migrant status’ of labour forms the backbone of most industrial and agricultural centres in India.

* Integration of Proletarians as Individual ‘Citizens’

Reproduction of a modern proletariat is not merely a reproduction of their labour force and their class position, it also entails the reproduction as a citizen – as an individual with a legal or illegal relationship with the political body of class relations, with the state. It is therefore not surprising that in India the world largest employment scheme MGNREGS is paralleled by and intertwined with the world largest census and biometric data-collection through introduction of the ‘unique identity scheme’ (UID), the issuing of a modern biometric ID-card.

The Census and the UID Scheme [11]

In January 2012 around 200 million people have been registered in the UID scheme. There has been a lot of debate about the political content of both current census and introduction of the ‘unique identity scheme’ (UID). The justification for gathering this data and its electronic combination in a database is that in future, the availability of this data for all kind of state (welfare) institutions (vaccination, health care, food aid, social benefits etc.) will deliver ‘better services’ and prevent corruption – ‘corruption’ in the sense of the state also means any ‘illegal’ appropriations by the working class. The UID scheme combines work by central and state governments and private companies which got sub-contracted to undertake the biometric-datacollection, amongst others Accenture and L-1 Identity Solutions (USA), Morpho (France) and Wipro (India). Wipro is paid 26 Rs by the state for each registration, the registration workers are supposed to register 40 to 50 people a day. The state allocated 614 million USD for the first five years of the scheme ending 2012, the budget for the next phase has more than doubled.

One of the criticism of the current census was that for the first tie since independence the questions of caste belonging was re-incorporated in the questions asked, in addition to general questions of the household income, seize, means of reproduction of the rural proletariat. In times of crisis, where ‘identity (caste) politics’ are less a means of upward mobility, but of ‘divide and rule’, such a formal and socially integrated official registration of caste is a potentially fatal information in the hands of our enemy. Whoever maintains the idea that the database is in ‘neutral democratic’ hands should remember the last time when the state ‘systematically’ dealt with rural and urban poverty after the major global crisis of 1973: despite their brutal consequences, the lists for (enforced) sterilisation programs, slum demolition/relocations and arrests during the Emergency (1975) seem scarily sketchy compared to the current integrated data-management of the state.

The link between ‘formalised citizenship’ and MGNREGS is direct in the sense that in order to enrol in MGNREGS you need to be registered in your village, you need an ID in order to get a job card or to open bank accounts. In general this combination of MGNREGS and ID-politics does not only allow the state more insight into the reproduction of the rural proletariat and increases the economic and political dependency of the ‘poor’, it also facilitates their further monetary/market integration, e.g. through shift from material entitlements (subsidised food, gas etc.) to cash transfers thanks to bank accounts. MGNREGS is the capitalist utopia of combining an ultra-light IT-based administration of proletarians as ‘transparent’ and participating citizens with their most labour intensive exploitation. [12]

* Internal Re-figuration of the Global and Local State

Obviously, the actual strength and stability of a class society is not measured in the degree of state control over individual proletarians, but rather whether it does not need to make use of too much force and control mechanisms in order to reproduce itself. In this sense the degree of ‘participation’ of wider layers of society (and working class) in the management of social labour (exploitation) can be seen as a much more decisive indicator for the condition of a class society. In this sense MGNREGS has another (re-)productive function, which is a) re-shaping the inter-state relations and b) invigorating the ideology and practice of ‘democratic participation’, meaning, strengthening the ties between state and society. First of all we can see how around MGNREGS – around the management of largely female rural labour in the poorest areas of the globe – it reveals itself what ‘the state’ is today; state not in a formal sense of ‘Indian public administration’, but ‘state’ in the sense of political coordinator and regulator of proletarian reproduction.

The Pyramid of the MGNREGS State Management

Who participates in shaping and managing the scheme? We clearly see that it starts on a supra-national level of ‘global governance’, the advisory function of developmental institutions of UN and World Bank and of the large global NGOs is direct, the financial involvement mediated. On the central and federal state level there exists a close cooperation between the governmental institutions, ‘civil society’ and academic apparatus in the development of the scheme.

Abstracted from the wider social context of the scheme, abstracted from the social pressure of thousands of suicides in the cotton zones of India and the dire prospect of millions of urban slum dwellings, MGNREGS becomes a playfield of ideologies and institutions who want to use the ‘human capital’ of (female) labour in order to save the planet or empower women (significant involvement of eco and women NGOs), or re-vive the Indian village community with their Gandhian thoughts. These organisations can only play out their well-intended ideas if they actually take part in management of the scheme and directly or not, in the financial resources attached to it. In this sense, from a systematic and not moralistic point of view, we can call this the actually most blatant form of ‘corruption': a large amount of fairly cushy jobs, research careers etc. on the back of the rural proletariat. To get an impression: gwn48_manrega

From a systemic point of view, the productive function of this ‘managing strata’ is to deliver an ideological and practical framework for the ‘participation’ of the rural poor in the scheme – or at least to foster the participation of an emerging new layer of representatives on village level. Crucially, this ‘higher strata of stata/NGO management’ emphasises that for political reasons MGNREGS should based on and fortify the institution of the ‘gram panchayat’, the village council – in cooperation with ‘social audits’ of civil society organisations.

The Role of the Panchayat (Village Council)…

The focus of the central state machinery on these ‘village councils’ is not new. In India there are currently around 230,000 elected village councils. During colonial times these village councils’ relation with the central state was mainly characterised by tax transfer, not by direct political control – in many areas this did not change fundamentally during the first decades after ‘independence’. After the waves of rural turmoil of the 1970s the central state launched a campaign to intensify the central state’s control over the rural sphere by strengthening the ‘gram panchayat raj’. This was officially justified by saying that the ‘democratic panchayat’ would break the old patriarchal caste rule, which the ‘old panchayat’ was said to represent. Actually this old ‘caste rule’ had been put into question by struggle and changing rural economy previously – the state’s campaign to ‘democratize’ the village sphere was in this regard more a reaction to this turmoil and an attempt to re-integrate discontent into state politics.

Laws were passed which guaranteed women and members of lower castes half the seats in the council, certain elements of state decision were ‘handed over’ to the panchayat level. Many people, and many leftist, saw this as a move towards decentralisation and a return to ‘old (Gandhian) local egalitarianism’, when actually the ‘decentralisation went intertwined with an actual centralisation of control over village politics and economy (large agro-business, fiscal transfers etc.) and the integration into state machinery of a new layer of ‘representatives’ of the ‘lower castes’. It’s not by chance that this ‘(de)centralisation’ intensified after the 1990 crisis and subsequent ‘neoliberal reforms’.

…in the Management of Crisis

MGNREGS can be seen as a kind of ‘economic’ complement to this ‘political’ attempt to ‘grass-root’ state power. We can see the same combination of centralisation and decentralisation taking place. Today, the official justification and progressive gloss is not to break the stronghold of the upper-caste rule, but rather the rule of the ‘local corruption’, the alliance of local politicians, contractors, larger landholders. The management of MGNREGS is handed over to the panchayat – while the actual framework of the scheme, it’s narrow confinements, are set by the central state and the general conditions of capitalist crisis. This ‘handing down’ of the responsibility to self-manage the effects of crisis to ‘the local community’ has its counterparts all over the globe, e.g. in the ideology of the Big Society in the UK. [13]

Over the last years the central Indian state has cut money for both general rural/agricultural development schemes and public food distribution systems. MGNREGS can be seen as a partly substitute for these investments: the central state pays minimum wages for work-scheme, the gram panchayat is forced to use ‘it’s local labour’ to accomplish necessary ‘infrastructural development’ instead of relying on central state funding. The crisis should be managed on low-investment levels, in a combination of labour intensity, ‘voluntary sector activities’ and other forms of self-regulation and initiatives. Conflicts, which emerge due to general global contradictions, are supposed to be solved within the formal and financial frame-work of the ‘local community’.

* Invigorating the Dialog between Rural Proletariat and State

We have many examples of how MGNREGS is ‘corrupted’ by the alliance of local power (political caste, land-owners, contractors) in order to fortify their position to the disadvantage of the rural poor. [14] This gives reason and credibility to the struggle for the ‘proper implementation’ of MGNREGS. While the struggle against the local elite is obviously necessary, the problem arising is two-fold: a) focussing on the ‘legal framework’ of MGNREGS will not manage to understand the ‘systemic’ implication of central state in local power, it will burn itself out in the attempt of appealing to ‘central law’ against ‘local rule’, thereby creating unnecessary illusions within the rural proletariat; b) it will, wanted or not, provide MGNREGS with a ‘progressive’ aura, which objectively, as a hard labour scheme in late capitalism, it does not have.

To a certain extend the prescribed framework of MGNREGS encourages ‘disputes’ on the local state level, in order to re-balance the relation between general reproduction of the rural proletariat, general state crisis regime and interests of the local bourgeoisie. The state is aware that a ‘corrupt’ local elite would be overwhelmed with the task to socially manage the enormous pressures of rural crisis. In this sense MGNREGS and legal changes such as the ‘Right to Information Act’ can be seen as a kind of ‘cultural revolution’ – a re-structuring from above which takes the form of ‘controlled dispute’.

“Typically conducted in partnership with a local “people’s organisation”, a social audit involves the systematic review of documents related to NREGA works in a given locality. Files are scoured by teams of volunteer-auditors trained and overseen by facilitators with experience of similar audits elsewhere. Forms containing administrative clearances and technical sanctions are reviewed for procedural lapses. Financial records (muster rolls, job cards, material vouchers, expense ledgers, bank statements) are examined for inconsistencies. The audits culminate in public meetings where local people (particularly NREGA workers) are invited to comment orally on specific issues raised by the audit teams. Testimonies are based on their direct experience as workers or supervisors on NREGA projects or suppliers to particular worksites. Discrepancies between government records and oral accounts are scrutinised. Officials are asked to offer explanations for apparent violations of procedural norms. These meetings are held either as an extension to or, where local authorities are uncooperative, in lieu of – the gram sabha [village council assembly].” (EPW, March 2012)

The legally set boundaries of this ‘arena of struggle’ are able to contain most of the current ‘MGNREGS activism’. Following some quotations, which reflect the attitude of ‘critical participation’ on the left.

“I believe the primary stakeholder of NREGA has to be a social movement which organizes the end beneficiary (rural communities) around their right to work. If the political will is assumed to stay, we should start treating the government resources like venture capital for socio-political entrepreneurship by all the strategic stakeholders of NREGS.”
(http://nrega.nic.in/circular/So_Audit_I.pdf)

“Turning the mai-baap State on its head, holding it accountable to its people, rights-based legislations have the ability to politicize the population for a truly functional democracy. Already NREGA workers across the country are registering trade unions to mobilize and fight for their rights. There is immense potential in these unions – traditionally mobilization has taken place along divisive (and dead-end) issues like caste and religion – for political gain of vested interests but not politicization of the individual.”
(Ruchi Gupta: http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2011/01/3799)

“It is important that programs meant for the disadvantaged, the marginalized, the poor be monitored by Civil Society Organisations (CSO). Monitoring Reports with advocacy for change can generate pressure for corrective measures. But this depends on the initiative of the CSO. CSOs with required resources and commitment can make NREGA a great success.”
(http://www.ohchr.org/documents/publications/goodgovernance.pdf)

“The State provides employment, and by virtue of its scale effectively raises wage rates in the labor market. Finally through built-in transparency and penal provisions, the government is held accountable for both performance (timely employment, payment) and accounting (open muster rolls, social audit). This form of governance – large role of State, redistributive stance, grassroots political activism for state accountability – is firmly on the far left of the ideological divide.”

“NREGA In West Bengal: How To Ruin A Working Class Programme
On 2nd February 2006, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) finally became operational. It was the fruit of three decades of struggle by unions, political parties and people’s organisations all over the country. What actually underlies the non-performance of West Bengal in NREGA is the class character of the Government that we have. The Left Front may call itself a working class government; it has however become a government of the rich and powerful. Radicalization of NREGA is one of those many cumbersome mechanisms of extra-parliamentary democratic institutions in which left must intervene and play an active role.”

(http://khetmajoorsamity.blogspot.com)

*** Current Struggles within MGNREGS and Preliminary Conclusions for the Communist Movement

Most official struggles within MGNREGS we hear about are waged by trade unions [15] for the proper implementation of MGNREGS. A ‘trade union’ view imposes itself rather automatically, given the extreme ‘rights violations’ within the scheme: corruption through middle-men or faked job cards, non-implementation of the scheme or only little amount of days, wages not paid fully and delayed, wages based on piece rate which does not allow to earn minimum wage, non-payment of unemployment allowance in case scheme is delayed, work not within 5 km radius, no facilities (creche, toilets), not work according to physical abilities, sidelining of community and grassroot organisations when it comes to decision making etc.

There are large amounts of small scale actions, in particular about non-payment or low payment of wages.

In early 2011, in Keshabpur village in West Bengal workers started a dharna in front of the Panchayat office after having not been paid wages for 24 days of work for over two months. After staying there overnight, on the next day, they were informed that wages would be paid immediately – at the rate of Rs.22 per day for 8 hours of hard labour. When the workers refused to take such low payment, a revision of the piece rate took place – they were offered Rs.48 per day. The workers have still refused to take these low wages and have asked for a third count – in their presence.
In July 2011, 100 workers from Sewapuri block of Varanasi district in Uttar Pradesh got unemployment allowance under NREGA after a two year long struggle. After several protest demonstrations, the government was forced to order an enquiry into the matter, and finally gave orders for the payment of unemployment allowance to 107 workers. The workers who received an amount of approx Rs. 1400 individually were paid after they declared they would sit on an indefinite dharna.
On 22nd of September 2011, three members of Uttarakhand MNREGS Contract Employees Union have climbed on top of a telecommunication tower in Dehradun. One of them claimed that the junior engineer, computer operators and accountants are being provided jobs on contract through NGOs under MNREGS, but that these employees are not being paid whatever promised by the NGO officials. They demanded that junior engineer, accountants and computer operators should be considered as employee of DRDA (District Rural Development Agency), as public sector workers.
In December 2011, after 47 days of a protest sit-in in Jaipur by workers employed under MGNREGS the Rajasthan state government acceded to the worker’s demands on five issues, principal amongst which was payment of state minimum wages and inflation compensation.

Mass actions organised by established institutions tend to have rather symbolic character and address mainly the upper-level of the political class.

In February 2011, MGNREGA workers in West Bengal protested to draw attention to non-implementation issues. The protests held were part of a national programme organised by the New Trade Union Initiative, a national centre of independent trade unions. Nearly 150 members of the PBKMS and Shramajivi Mahila Samity (SMS) blocked the offices of the Minister of Panchayat and Rural Development and demanded better implementation of the programme.
On 12th of June 2011, several thousand NREGA workers crossed the borders of Punjab to demand work in the neighbouring state Haryana. They thereby protested against the lower MGNREGS wages in Punjab and wanted to show that there is not enough work under the scheme in Punjab.

What means do MGNREGS workers have in order to enforce their demand, apart from pressurising the political class to ‘stick to their own laws’? From general experience we can derive that it is not the ‘appeal to the law’ or the astute work of lawyers which ‘make the rulers stick to their rules’, but actual pressure and the threat that unrest in whatever form might spread from clearly defined boundaries of a welfare scheme into the wider sphere of rural production.

We can assume that ‘going on strike’ in classical terms will be more difficult in a work scheme, where ‘paid work’ is presented as a welfare benefit – though we should not exclude the possibility that under specific conditions local and wider ruling class might actually depend on MGNREGS work-force. A concrete analysis of the actual work performed under MGNREGS is a pre-condition for finding ways and means to fight back. Of equal significance is the analysis how workers in a MGNREGS scheme have other seasonal rural or urban labour experiences in common and whether struggle within MGNREGS can be based on this wider experience. We have to see whether proletarians can make use of the fact that during other times of the year their collective work-force is needed in harvests, brick-kilns, constructions sides or factories. We have to analyse whether the pressure which they are able to exert there can somehow be extended into the situation within MGNREGS – where larger numbers of people tend to work together on the same sites.

This is not completely abstract, given that workers act this way on an individual and perhaps more passive level. They quit MGNREGS jobs as soon as they find other work which is slightly higher paid. The fact that in most regions the regime was forced to introduce piece-rate systems also indicates at the fact that workers are not merely grateful receivers of benefits, but subjects, who are able to withhold their labour power.

Therefore the main problem with the ‘official trade union’ struggle is not so much that they ‘focus on the law’ and come up with mainly symbolic activities, but that they confine the arena of struggle very formally to the scheme itself, where the ability for workers to develop their full potential of collectivity and power is necessarily limited. This is also partly due to the fact that for the trade unions, to organise ‘MGNREGS workers as MGNREGS workers’ allows them to build up a mass base of rather dependent members in a short time – similar to many NGO’s within the scheme these representative institutions develop their own interest in keeping things running and keep the workers in the position they are in. Part of this separate logic of organisation is the propagandistic presentation of the scheme as ‘an achievement’ of struggles – which mystifies its actual content as part of the crisis regime. These organisations will not analyse and turn into a weapon the total experience and practice of the rural proletarians engaged in MGNREGS – from their experience of seasonal migration to acts of individual and collective sabotage and absenteeism.

To sum up, a communist position towards MGNREGS would mean to first of all call MGNREGS by its name, instead of disguising it as an achievement for the proletariat. It would mean to clearly abstain from any participation in designing or promoting the scheme or co-management. It would secondly mean to support practically any struggle for higher wages and less work within the scheme, by all means necessary, without restricting it to the symbolic or legal terrain and without developing a separate organisational interest from the workers. It would finally mean to analyse the organisational potential of workers’ actual movement between seasonal rural and urban labour, the experience of migration and the work within MGNREGS. Here the usual interpretation of ‘state run work-schemes’ prevailing on the left, which either demonise them as a ‘return to unfree forms of labour’ (prison economy) or mystify them as ‘a chance for non-market form of labour’, have to be overcome – through analytical and practical reference to the dimension of the ‘collective worker’.

Footnotes

[1]
If you happen to have the means and time you can watch the following documentary on the scheme, supported by the development organisation of the UN and the Indian Ministry for Rural Development, which provides a propagandistic, but fairly comprehensive overview.

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/7585/NREGA-Reforms—Building-Rural-India

[2]
Some contributions to the debate about work-schemes in the UK.

http://libcom.org/blog/new-social-workhouse-16022012

http://thethirdestate.net/2012/02/workfare-in-context/

[3]
Exception here is the Punjab, the most advanced agricultural region, where the number and proportion of small-holdings has been declining over time. During the last decade, 1,28,000 small-holders leased out their land to larger holders and operators and opted out of farming. In addition, 72,000 sold their land to larger farmers. Of these 2,00,000 smallholders, about 22 per cent joined the ranks of agricultural or other labourers.

[4]
According to a NSS survey for the year 2003-04 , the top 5.2 per cent of rural households own 42.8 per cent of agricultural land, and the top 9.5 per cent own 56.6 per cent.

[5]
Agriculture, then, seems to be particularly ‘productive’ only when it is performed as a family enterprise and/or by employing migrant seasonal workers. Actually they are highly specialised – and only nominally ‘self-employed’ – as independent producers in the agro-processing industry. They form part of a very finely calibrated division of labour; the work methods they apply are prescribed by the processing industry, but they have to bear the entrepreneurial risk themselves.

http://www.wildcat-www.de/en/wildcat/89/e_w89_nahrungsmittel.html

[6]
Punjab has been corporatising its farming sector since the 1990s. Field Fresh – an equal partnership venture between Bharti Enterprises and Rothschild – has leased 4,000 acres of land and employs the former owner-cultivators as farm managers. Fresh fruits and vegetables from Field Fresh are exported to the European Union, eastern Europe, Asia. The company claims that the livelihoods of its lessors have improved compared to when they were owner-cultivators as it pays a minimum wage of Rs 80 a day.

Another example are the ‘Punjab potato kings’, who include three families who cultivate seed potato on 12,000 acres of leased land and have cold storage facilities that can store their entire produce. The largest of these three potato kings cultivates 5,500 acres and employs 5,000 labourers during peak periods, mostly migrant workers from Bihar who live in makeshift tents next to the potato fields. They are recruited through “contractors” and supervised by mangers specially hired for the purpose (Witsoe 2006).

More recently, the state government announced a subsidy for farmers for the purchase of transplantation machines. Based on recommendations of the farmers’ commission, it extended a subsidy of Rs 75,000 for each transplantation machine. With the help of these machines, about 5 acres can be planted in a day compared to five persons taking a day to plant one acre. (Singh)

[7]
As an example of a ‘developmentalist’ view on MGNREGS:
“What we need is a livelihood focus in NREGA and creation of livelihood opportunities in the local economy using NREGA funds. NREGA projects should not merely generate wages but should build livelihood assets for the community as well as the individual families that will make them self reliant over the short to medium term rather than be dependent on State doles year after year.”

http://sapplpp.org/openforum/developing-block-level-plans-for-livelihood-promotion-through-nrega-examples-advice

[8]
One of the reasons given for why the Maoists oppose MGNREGS is that further construction of roads will facilitate the mobility of the Indian army in the area. In case of the killing of Niyamat Ansari, a MGNREGS activist the statemen issued by South Latehar Sub-zonal Committee of CPI (Maoist) not only claims the responsibility of the murder but also provides a motive for the act. According to the statement, Niyamat was killed because he did not report for a “people’s trial” conducted by CPI (Maoist) and turned police informer. There is actually more evidence for the case that local construction contractors close to the Maoists felt bothered by Ansari’s activities.

[9]
See following example from a MGNREGS report:
Deepening of village pond (NREGA)
in Thandrampattu
This work was sanctioned for an amount of Rs 50,000. the work involved excavation of earth. It was estimated that a total quantity of 1657 cubic metres of earth has to be excavated @Rs 25 per cubic metre. Including some other minor items the total estimate for the work was worked out at Rs 50,000 based on PWD schedule of rate. The work started on 17-2-06. The first measurement of work was carried out on 27-2-06. At that time it was recorded that 207 cubic metres of excavation has been completed. Accordingly, using the PWD schedule of rates the value of work turned out was arrived at Rs. 6693. As per the muster rolls 162 person days were required to achieve this work turn out. 90 per cent of the workers were women. Thus the payment per person per day worked out as 6693/162=Rs 41.31 per day.

[10]
“Why did the trickle of migration from these villages become a stream in the early 2000s? The reasons are to be found in two marked changes in the forces and relations of production – the casualisation of labour and the partial mechanisation of production. The casualisation of labour has taken two predominant forms: growing levels of individualised daily casual employment and group-based piece-rate work during times of peak labour demand. These changes in the relations of production have been accelerated by the partial mechanisation of agricultural production, e.g. the adoption of labour-saving rice harvesting machinery between 2002 and 2004.”
(Pattenden: Global Labour Journal 3)

[11]
There exists a lot of technological fetishism concerning UID, seen either as a purely neutral census measure or a technological fix for poverty:

“Poverty has many causes, and no simple cure. But one massive problem in India is that few poor people can prove who they are. Their lack of an identity excludes them from the modern economy. They cannot open bank accounts, and no one would be so foolish as to lend them money. If poor Indians each had an identity number tied to unique biometric markers, it would be much harder for the powerful to rob them.”
“Once recipients have bank accounts, India can follow the likes of Brazil and replace easily stolen benefits in kind, such as rations of cheap food and fuel, with direct cash transfers. Not only do these cut theft, but cash payments also let beneficiaries become mobile-for example so they can leave their state to seek work, while not jeopardising any benefits.”
“Last week Karnataka state claimed that by paying welfare direct to bank accounts it had cut some 2m ghost labourers from a rural public-works project.”
“Microfinance should start to work better, too. It enjoyed a huge boom in recent years, followed by a bust. Many poor people found they could borrow more than they could ever hope to repay by going to several lenders. As a result, some microfinance outfits collapsed. The UID scheme ought to allow for greater control over such small loans.”
(http://www.economist.com/node/21542763)

[12]
The end objective should be ‘Each village maintaining a picture database of job seeking families (or unemployed villagers seeking employment) and the information should be available online creating mirror image of the NREGS implementation process. One of the ways in which the government or the civil society can contribute to further strengthen NREGA is to train Mahila Mandals/SHG Federations/ CBOs/Youths/Individuals/Press etc on how to access these web pages at a local internet café to know about the work that is being proposed and completed in their villages.
IT/state: http://www.nrega.nic.in/netnrega/home.aspx

[13]
Here an example of the discourse:
“The panchayat balance sheets are dominated by grants from the state government and they are the source of funds for the bulk of expenditure on public works in these villages. If there are no clear guidelines on the “hardness” of fiscal budget constraints as they pertain to the flow of funds from higher-level governments to local ones, local governments will have the tendency to spend beyond their means in the expectation that they will be bailed out in times of need. What such “soft” budget constraints also imply is that local governments will slacken their efforts to levy and collect taxes and fees because, in addition to such moves being politically unpopular, they expect that their funding needs will be largely met by flows from higher-level governments.”

http://www.wotr.org/upload/Panchayat_Raj_on_the_Ground.pdf

[14]
A very accurate description of the coalition of local economical and political class:
The wide variety of development schemes launched by the TDP and Congress from the 1990s till today has strongly reinforced local political clientelism and the power of rural leaders, who control and redistribute profits (after taking a substantial percentage). Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy, the Congress leader from 2004 to 2009, pursued such policies and launched a large number of development schemes related to pension, housing and health. He also pushed ahead with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Those are some of the schemes that have deeply reinforced competition and divisions in the village, between political parties as well as within castes. The access to ration cards and other schemes is not a right (as it should be, formally): access is provided through subtle and endless negotiations and manipulations of local micro-hierarchies, from caste to individual levels. To secure access to those programs after months in Hyderabad, migrant labourers have to display their support to the TDP party (who hold power at the village and district level), while henchmen of the party ensure the votes of the caste.

N. Reddy is one such goonda, the grandson of the village’s main moneylender, combining many activities. He is a close associate of the head of the village and the Village Development Officer, mobilises supporters for political meetings, collects migrants’ debts, and is in charge of collecting microcredit group funds at the Cluster level, which his mother directs. Through long-standing docility to the head of the village and a mixture of violence and protection towards the low-castes (Alm 2010), in 2009 he managed not only to become the manager of the shop for subsidized products (petrol, rice, etc.), products which he sells for own profit in the nearby town, but also became a main agent of NREGA. Within NREGA, on average 10 to 15 days of work is carried out per year, in contrast to the 100 days planned and charged. This clearly demonstrates the diversion of money within the scheme and its importance as a source of corruption.
(Migrant Labourers’ Struggles Between Village and Urban Migration Sites: Labour Standards, Rural Development and Politics in South India; David Picherit)

[15]
Some links to MGNREGS related unions:

http://www.mkssindia.org/about-us/

http://nrega.net.in/

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