Sohrab Hura | Pati

Country of origin: India
Project location: India
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

Only very recently has the economic boom of India  begun to reach its citizens in rural areas who suffer some of the worst poverty conditions in the world and need such  progress  the  most.    Over  three-­‐fourths  of  India’s poor live in rural areas, with a majority of this population working as daily agricultural laborers for less than  a dollar a day. The introduction of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in 2005, which guarantees rural citizens 100 days of paid, public work began the first large government support system of the rural poor.

But when water is often a several mile journey, health care is a full day’s walk, and agricultural yield has steadily fell due to global warming, this transformation of rural India into civil society is not only a long journey, but the clashes between public and private interests are surfacing quick. Photographer Sohrab Hura documents the current conditions of poverty in rural India and the introduction of government supported work programs.


The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was established in August 25, 2005 guaranteeing 100 days per year of paid minimum wage work for any adult living in rural areas of India. The act was later renamed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2009. In 2010, the government allocated the equivalent of 8.92 billion U.S. dollars to help empower unskilled laborers residing in rural areas with work opportunities.

Jean Dreze is a development-economist who has worked in India for the past three decades. He contributed research and helped draft the first NREGA law in 2005. Many cite him as the leading champion and head architect of the welfare program.

Reetika Khera is also a development economist working in India on NREGA. A former student of Jean Dreze, Reetika has conducted extensive research and fieldwork on Pati residents, a population who exemplifies what could be achieved through NREGA.

Interview with Jean Dreze

SOHRAB: The NREGA marks a radical shift from welfarist to rights based social policy. But the experience over the last 5 years has shown that states are implementing the programme as primarily supply driven. Why do you think the demand principle has not worked? 

JEAN: I would not say that NREGA, on its own, represents a shift from welfarist to rights based social policy. But I agree that it is an important part of this shift, along with like-minded legislations such as the Right to Information Act, the Forest Rights Act, the Right to Education Act, and Supreme Court orders on the right to food. In the case of NREGA, the rights approach is reflected not only in the principle of work on demand, but also in a range of other entitlements such as minimum wages, timely payment, and basic worksite facilities. These entitlements have been realized to varying extents, and are still in the process of being won. 

It is true that the right to work on demand is still largely symbolic, if one takes it in the literal sense of anyone being able to get work within 15 days of applying. But I would not say that this right is vacuous. Indeed, the notion that NREGA employment is something that cannot be refused does have a strong influence on the way the programme is planned and implemented. Little is happening by way of explicit work applications, but there is a great deal of effective pressure for work, expressed for instance through Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) or informal communications to the Block Development Officer (BDO). And the system does respond to this pressure, precisely because it is accepted that everyone has a right to NREGA work. For instance, a sarpanch (village headman) who is concerned to be re-elected is likely to do something to ensure that his constituents are able to get work under NREGA. This is not to deny that more needs to be done to activate and facilitate the formal work application process. But we should not confuse the work application process with the right to work on demand. 

SOHRAB: Do you feel that the NREGA has been able to adequately address distress seasonal migration? 

JEAN: In a random sample of 1,000 workers interviewed in May and June 2008, more than half said that NREGA had helped them to avoid migration. These figures speak for themselves. There are also numerous newspaper reports of growing labour shortages and rising wages in areas that make heavy use of migrant labour, such as Punjab and Assam. 

However, the 2008 survey was conducted before the transition to bank payments of NREGA wages. This development, helpful as it was in curbing corruption, was also associated with the emergence of massive delays in wage payments. These delays cause enormous hardship to NREGA workers, and defeat the main purpose of the Act, which is to provide some economic security to the rural poor. Today, many people hesitate to take up NREGA work because they just don't know when they will be paid. My guess is that, along with this slackening of demand for NREGA work, distress migration has intensified. 

SOHRAB: How do you see the NREGA evolve over the next few years in terms of the types of work undertaken and the impact on agricultural productivity? 

JEAN: My first concern is the sheer survival of the programme. Nothing can be taken for granted. The state of Maharashtra had a functional Employment Guarantee Scheme in the 1970s and 1980s, but then it was effectively phased out in the 1990s. The national programme could easily go the same way. There are many forces against it: the corporate sector is worried about rising wages and trade union activity; large farmers resent the bargaining power NREGA gives to casual labourers; the bureaucracy often regards NREGA as a headache; and most importantly, the ruling classes are hostile to any sort of empowerment of the rural poor. Therefore, defending the gains that have been achieved is a constant struggle. 

The second priority is to ensure that people are able to secure their entitlements under the Act. As I said, this means not just employment on demand, but also timely payment, basic worksite facilities, and also more advanced entitlements such as compensation in the event of delays in wage payments. There is still a very long way to go in this respect. 

The third priority is participatory planning and the economic productivity of NREGA works. Very little attention has been given to this so far. This is a major loss, because there are enormous possibilities of productive work under NREGA. In a state like Jharkhand, NREGA could literally transform the rural economy. In almost every village, there is extensive scope for watershed development, building roads, afforestation works and, last but not least, creation of productive assets such as wells on private land. The rates of return on some of these works are very high, even in plain economic terms. Tapping that potential, however, requires major changes and innovations, such as the activation of Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) and the provision of technical support. The main problem here is that the rural engineering staff is very corrupt and totally unaccountable. But this too can change. 

SOHRAB: In what way has the NREGA been able to energise local governance/Panchayats? 

JEAN: NREGA is a great opportunity to activate the institutions of local governance, including Gram Panchayats (village councils) and Gram Sabhas (village assemblies). It gives them a new, collective purpose, backed by substantial funds and other resources. There are signs of gradual progress in this area. For instance, Gram Sabhas are being convened for the first time, in areas where people were not even used to the concept of everyone (men and women, high-caste and low-caste) sitting together to discuss common concerns. But here again, there is a long way to go. Village communities are still at the mercy of the Block administration at every step, from the sanctioning of works to the payment of wages. Ideally, Gram Panchayats and Gram Sabhas should take over most aspects of the implementation of NREGA. Of course, village institutions themselves are not necessarily democratic or corruption-free. But at least they are not entirely deaf to people demands. 

Interview with Reetika Khera

SOHRAB: How did the NREGA fit into the already strong people's movement in Pati? In what ways do you see the implementation of the programme influenced by this movement and vice versa?

REETIKA: "It is only after getting organized that we were able to make good use of the NREGA. The [Jagrut Adivasi Dalit] Sangathan fought for this at every step." In these simple words, Dinesh sums up years of struggle in Pati block (the Badwani district in Madhya Pradesh) under the banner of the Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS). The implementation of NREGA in Pati is a powerful demonstration of what such programmes can achieve when there is a strong labourers organization. In contrast to most other areas we have visited, Pati labourers are aware not only of their entitlements but also of the procedures to realize these entitlements. Equally, Pati's experience shows role of NREGA in strengthening organizations such as JADS as it fosters a sense of solidarity among Sangathan members.

SOHRAB:What are the differences that you see in the interaction between people and State in a place like Pati versus a state like Jharkhand where you have been working for some time now?

REETIKA:There are striking differences between Pati and other rural areas where I have done fieldwork. First is the palpable sense of empowerment and agency of the residents of Pati, in contrast to a sense of resignation elsewhere. This is remarkable also because the people of these areas share similar social and economic disadvantages. In Jharkhand, there is often a sense of despondency and resignation. A sense that, "If we do not get what we are entitled to, we are grateful if we get at least some of it and will get by with that." Speaking to adivasi Sangathan members in Pati, is very different from speaking to adivasis in Jharkhand. Here, the question of not getting what one is entitled to, almost does not arise; in fact, one finds people who have definite views on what their entitlements ought to consist of. In other areas, it is rare to find otherwise disadvantaged poor people exercise their agency in this manner to influence administration.

Second, such empowerment has led to inculcating a sense of accountability among government functionaries. Government servants in Pati are learning that they are there to serve the people. This cannot be said of public officials in most areas of Jharkhand, where so often it is a struggle to even find them during office hours.

SOHRAB: It has been 6 years since the NREGA was enacted, what has been the evolution of implementation challenges? And what are the biggest hurdles to the Act today? And what according to you will be the game-changers that can address these?

REETIKA:In the initial years of implementation, the NREGA faced a predictable set of problems: lack of awareness, putting systems in place, ensuring transparent and corruption-free implementation. The early phase was also marked by hostility towards the programme, especially in the business press. However, the success of the Congress in the 2009 general elections coupled with the global economic meltdown around the same time, changed that to some extent. As policy makers searched for non-inflationary fiscal stimulus, NREGA became popular.

Today, the NREGA occupies a peculiar position on the political map: on the one hand, political parties vie to take credit for it and claim it as their own, but on the other hand, in many parts of the country, the programme is in danger of languishing as major implementation issues (e.g., the delays in wage payments) are quietly neglected. The combination of political opportunism and quiet neglect can be damaging in the long run. Organizing labor, as JADS has done, can be an important countervailing force.