This June, Krishnaiah, a small farmer with three acres of land in Rukkannapalle Gram Panchayat in Ghanpur Mandal of Mahabubnagar district earned Rs 75,000 from his mango orchard. The mango saplings were given free under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The pitting and planting activity was also supported under the MGNREGS. Krishnaiah’s family had survived for three generations on subsistence farming, barely able to make two ends meet. Now they plan to build their own house.
Twenty other small farmers in the village earned between Rs 50,000 to Rs 1,00,000 from selling their mango crop—with as many as 15 being first time farmers. The poor quality of land in the village that had lain fallow for decades were successfully developed under the programme. Last year, every wage seeking family earned an average of Rs 10,000 under MGNREGS. Local tribal markets that were held once in a way are now regularly held. Cereal and oil consumption has gone up significantly and most children now attend private and governmental schools.
Located in a semi-arid region with low rainfall, poor soil conditions, scanty vegetation, Rukkannapalle is home to 950 tribal families dependent on rainfed agriculture. Some own small pockets of land, while most are landless labourers. Wage work was available for only a few days every year. “A frugal meal of millets porridge (ambali) or roti with wild leafy vegetables and chilli was all we had throughout the year,” recollects a villager. “For many decades, all of us in the village used to lock houses and leave the village” Krishnaiah says, “we could not save a rupee”. Hardship and desolation were permanent partners for these tribals. The end of the monsoon always saw crammed buses carry villagers to Mumbai to work on construction and infrastructural sites. Only the old, disabled and children were left behind.
Change came with the implementation of MGNREGS in 2006 when more than 1200 acres of fallow land was developed. Bushes were cleared, lands were levelled and earthen and stone bunds were built around it. Four tanks have been de-silted, 20 check dams and 10 mini-percolation tanks have been constructed. Individual household toilets have been constructed for 20 poor families and 100 more are planned for this year. Horticulture has been a major focus, while farm ponds, supply channels, field and feeder channels have received attention from the panchayat under the scheme.
Families which had migrated annually have now started cultivating their lands. With the application of silt and adequate treatment of the soil, in combination with water harvesting, check dams, and percolation tanks, the lands have become more productive. Drilling of 20 new bore wells has resulted in 70 additional acres of land coming under paddy cultivation. Agricultural wages have increased from Rs 80 to 200 for women and from Rs 130 to Rs 250 for men in the last six years. The value of land has increased from Rs 30,000 per acre in 2006 to Rs 4, 00,000 in 2013.
Although buses continue to ply to Mumbai, there is no distress migration now. A few may move to Mumbai and Dubai for seeking other opportunities, but a completely deserted village with rows of locked houses is a distant past. The three contractors in the village have now stopped supplying labour to construction sites in towns and have settled down to farming. A senior worker of the MGNREGS, elected as the deputy sarpanch in the 2013 elections, said that “MGNREGS work brought unity in the village”.
The impact of MGNREGS obviously varies from village to village even as the administration struggles to meet wage-seekers’ entitlements within what is essentially a rights-based framework. Even though MGNREGS is yet to become a demand- driven scheme where work comes as a right to every wage seeker, it can bring in irrevocable change, even when moderately successful. The allegations about the inefficiencies in the implementation of MGNREGS and its impact on agriculture due to its raising of farm labour wages, after hundreds of years of abysmally low wages, is a debate that is increasingly losing relevance. While upsurge or downswing in wages affecting the nations’ economy may be a matter of cerebral discourse, but for the poorest of the poor, who have lived in debilitating poverty for centuries, the scheme has brought in dignity. In a backdrop where the wage-worker toiled on fixed farms through generations, in near-bondage terms, MGNREGS has gifted freedom of choice and relative prosperity. Regardless of all else, this is enough reason for rejoicing.