5 March 2014.
On January 22nd the India International Centre of New Delhi hosted a workshop presenting the findings of an ESID-led research project on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the world’s largest social welfare scheme. An audience of public servants, NGO representatives, journalists and researchers from across India discussed the project findings and its implications for policy-makers.
The rationale for ESID’s research into MGNREGA is a clear empirical puzzle: despite similar implementation mechanisms across India, there is dramatic variation in outcomes across and within states, with poorer ones exhibiting seemingly lower demand for publicly supplied employment. The research team’s findings indicate that politics –manifested in terms of state capacity and elite commitment– is a key explanation for such variation. In particular, analysis suggests that MGNREGA implementation is driven less by the demand of poor beneficiaries than by the vagaries of supply, which is affected by the extent to which stakeholders recognize the political benefits of providing jobs to the very poor.
The project’s findings generated a lively discussion, with attendees reaffirming or questioning the analysis on the basis of their experience working with MGNREGA providers and recipients.
Some workshop participants argued that constrained demand was not only a feature of poorer states, but indeed of poorer groups within them, signalling a central role for class relations in the politics of MGNREGA. Others argued that state leaders may make a deliberate decision to not capture demand so as not to tie themselves to performance expectations that are likely to result in public failure. The argument was made that at the ground level there have been successful initiatives for enhancing demand, but ESID researchers countered that it was hard to convince the different levels of public actors involved on the desirability of such systems, especially when a concern with corruption and leakages overrides implementation goals. Finally, government representatives argued that expenditure per person, and not job provision, should be the ultimate test of MGNREGA success.
The second part of the workshop was devoted to policy implications, which centred on three key messages. First, there is a clear need to move away from management-oriented to service-oriented delivery, which entails stimulating demand by overcoming entrenched powerlessness and social stratification. Second, the focus of MGNREGA needs to be shifted from the current emphasis on leakage and corruption back to its primary goal, job provision, for which stronger accountability systems are needed. Third, once demand is registered and accountability strengthened, states should be allowed to focus on policy experimentation for results, which requires a greater emphasis on flexibility than control by the central government.
The findings and implications of the workshop resonate with the work that ESID researchers and affiliates are carrying out elsewhere: successful service provision that includes the poor and powerless is not a matter of technical design so much as political arrangements, in particular those that ensure elite commitment and strengthen state capacity.
The list of workshop participants includes Dr N C Saxena, Member of the National Advisory Council of the Government of India, Dr Santosh Mehrotra, Former member of the Indian Planning Commission, Dr Kiran Bhatty of the Centre for Policy Research, Dr Anuradha Joshi of the Institute of Development Studies-UK, Dr Manoj Panda, Director of the Institute of Economic Growth-Delhi, and Dr Leïla Choukroune, Director of Centre de Science Humaines-New Delhi, along with representatives from the Indian Administrative Services and civil society.
For more information, read ESID’s MGNREGA publications: