This project examines the role of two specific political variables – state capacity and elite commitment – in explaining the implementation of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
NREGA was passed in 2005 and it guarantees 100 days of employment to every rural household that demands work at a stipulated minimum wage. It is clear that it has not delivered on expectations and there are significant variations in NREGA outcomes across and within states in India. Past research has highlighted the role of local- and state-level political factors, but systematic evidence on which political processes and drivers are important, and how they affect the uneven implementation across the country, has been lacking.
Successful implementation is shaped by the manner in which political elites viewed the NREGA as being part of their strategy to reach out to the poor, and also not using it as a mechanism for rent extraction.
At the national level, there is a link between the ruling party’s ideological project and the implementation of NREGA. It needs to figure prominently in the political imaginary of the ruling coalition. The disjuncture that we observe between the commitment of the national political elites and regional political elites to NREGA implementation is a reflection of the federalist structure of Indian politics, and the relative autonomy of regional elites to act in ways that they see as being important in exercising political power and to consolidate their electoral base.
Given the high implementation intensity of NREGA, states with higher administrative capacity performed well in NREGA implementation.
With respect to within-state drivers of NREGA implementation, political competition is an important driver of elite commitment towards NREGA implementation at the local government level. Local power relations also shape the way elites were committed to NREGA implementation at the village level. When one set of elites saw the benefit of cooperating with agricultural labourers to ‘shut out’ the other set of elites from local government, NREGA was more likely to be implemented.