THE CHASE AND THE CHANGE
Down To Earth|March 16, 2021
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has shown what it can achieve by putting water conservation at its core

Reporting by: Sushmita Sengupta, New Delhi; G Ram Mohan, Ananthapuramu, Andhra Pradesh; Anil Ashwani Sharma, Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh; K A Shaji, Palakkad, Kerala; Bhagirath, Jalaun, Uttar Pradesh, and Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh; Ajit Panda, Balangir, Odisha; Aishwarya Sudha Govindarajan, Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu; Anand Dutt, Pakur, Jharkhand; Jayanta Basu, Bankura, West Bengal; Swati Bhatia, Dungarpur, Rajasthan, and Sirsa, Haryana; Tamanna Naseer, Chitradurga, Karnataka; Mohd Imran Khan, Kaimur, Bihar; Ishan Kukreti, Jalna, Maharashtra; Shagun Kapil, Ranga Reddy, Telangana; Jumana Shah, Sabarkantha, Gujarat

THE IDEA was simple: to chronicle the change the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA has brought in the lives of people in rural India. It turned out to be a task easier said than done. Fourteen correspondents covered a staggering 16,000 km in 15 states across the country (see map), hampered by restrictions posed by a pandemic, to gauge the impact of the world’s largest public wage programme in its 15th year of implementation.

A country where labour is the only capital for at least 50 per cent of the workforce, the programme guarantees, through a legal framework, at least 100 days of waged employment a year to households in rural India. This has made MGNREGA a much sought-after initiative for sustenance ever since it was implemented in 2006. Data on the MGNREGA website shows that on any given day, some 15 million people work under the programme at 1.4 million sites. In 15 years of implementation, it has generated than 31 billion person days of employment and the government has spent over R6.4 lakh crore on this demand-driven programme.

But MGNREGA is more than just a generator of employment opportunities. It also legally ties labour deployment with creation of productive assets—such as structures to harvest or conserve water, farm ponds and irrigation channels—to contribute to the overall development of the village. The programme mandates that at least 60 per cent of the works undertaken must be related to land and water conservation. After all, in villages that are primarily agrarian and predominantly rainfed, water availability determines destiny. This legal requirement makes MGNREGA stand out from other welfare and poverty alleviation programmes.

In a way, the programme has a built-in expiry date: the productive assets constructed would create so many economic opportunities in the villages that people would just stop demanding works. MGNREGA’s redundancy should be its ultimate barometer of success. How does MGNREGA fare on this count?

The government does track the number of people employed and the kinds of works undertaken. Down To Earth (dte) scoped 15 years of official data to estimate the numbers. They are huge.

Since 2006, more than 30 million water conservation-related assets have been created in the country’s rural areas. This comes to at least 50 water-related structures per village, with the total number of villages in India being 0.6 million, as per Census 2011. For comparison, India has 3.1 million elected panchayat representatives under what is known as the world’s largest experiment in local democracy. This means every village in the country has more water harvesting structures than elected panchayat members.

Calculations by DTEalso show that these structures have potentially conserved at least 28,741 million cubic metres of water in the past 15 years. Given the number of water structures and making some assumptions, at least 18.9 million hectares (ha) are being irrigated. This is beyond the 64.7 million ha farmlands that are in the command area of dams and receive water from reservoir-based irrigation systems. This potential of water structures under MGNREGA offers hope at a time when India stares at severe water scarcity. The 2018 Composite Water Management Index, developed by the government think-tank niti Aayog, notes that water demand in the country will exceed supply by 2030.

The 5th Minor Irrigation Census (the latest one, referring to the year 2013-14) says there were just 21.7 million minor irrigation structures in the country. Almost 95 per cent of these use groundwater. But 60 per cent of them are in disuse due to lack of water availability, indicating fast depletion of groundwater, the census found. The structures under MGNREGA aim to fix this decline by creating potential for water conservation and recharge of the aquifers.

So, have these water conservation structures under MGNREGA benefitted the villages? Fifteen years is a long time for any scheme to show its development potential in real terms. We began our 15-state excursion seeking an answer to this question.

TRICKY ASSESSMENT

There are more than 600 districts in the country and MGNREGA is being implemented in over half a million villages. So, how does one find what has changed and where? Is there a way to make a selection from the 30 million water-related structures to report on? How can one measure their impacts in term of income rise and revival of agriculture? The government does not monitor whether a structure has actually helped water conservation. Neither is there any data on the impact on groundwater levels, or on improvements in land productivity and livelihoods.

We came up with the idea of going to 16 of the 200 districts where MGNREGA was implemented in its first phase in 2006. In 2008, Delhi-based research think-tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had released an assessment of MGNREGA that involved detailed analysis of many of these 16 districts. DTEhad also reported widely on MGNREGA’s progress on productive assets creation in 2007, which also included reportage from a few of these districts.

Spread over various agro-ecological zones of the country, the government has listed these districts as the country’s poorest since 1952. They still lag on several development indicators. Official data also showed that the states in which these districts are located have reported significant works under the water conservation category. These districts, too, have constructed water-related structures by the thousands.

Selecting a village in each of these districts to report the “change” was an expansive exercise. In most states, district officials could not list one successful village; nor did they have list of villages with the “highest number of waterworks under MGNREGA”. Many regional non-profits helped in locating villages with remarkable works, while the 2008 CSE assessment guided us to villages to re-assess MGNREGA’s developmental impact after 15 years.

And did we witness change? We certainly witnessed the centrality of water conservation to overall village development. We visited Bandlapalli in Telangana’s Ananthapuramu district—the first village from where MGNREGA was launched in February 2006 by former prime minister Manmohan Singh—to find that distress migration has stopped and the village is droughtproof. In Barmani village of Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district—which DTEhad visited when MGNREGA was launched—we found that migrant labourers have returned to resume farming after the implementation of massive water conservation programmes. In Pookkottukavu village of Kerala’s Palakkad district, MGNREGA has lead to the formation of the country’s largest group of trained women well-diggers. In Pallassana village of the same district, such is the obsession with water conservation that the people have managed to revive a river. With water available, villages have increased agricultural productivity and made financial gains. In the perennially drought stricken Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, there are many villages that have used the programme to become water-surplus.

These villages have reaped enormous economic benefits defying all odds, notwithstanding the many lacunae of MGNREGA. How did they do it?

Trails of these remarkable turnarounds invariably lead to local communities focused on water conservation and their persistence to stick to this pathway to prosperity. At the core of this is the five-year plan every panchayat is mandated to make to implement MGNREGA. In all these villages, this plan has been zealously pursued. All these structures have been planned and executed under the supervision of gram sabhas or village councils, which consist of all residents of the village registered in the electoral rolls. The structures, thus, reflect local needs.

This is a story of millions of opportunities. As our reports show, every pond and tank is a development instrument and MGNREGA has created millions of them. Thus, by any parameter, MGNREGA is also the country’s largest water conservation exercise. However, it is time we stopped counting the number of works. The government must now measure the potential harvested from these instruments. For this, it must track impacts of water harvesting structures in terms of local land and water resources. Our stories point to the constant monitoring and maintenance of water works by communities to keep them working. As government data shows, half of the water structures are either left unfinished or have turned defunct after a few years due to the lack of maintenance. This is a wasted opportunity. But for the moment, let us celebrate the good news. The villages that began their development journey over a decade ago have shown the potential of using water as an agent of change. They should become the lighthouse for others. Many others.

SECURE FROM DROUGHT

The village from where MGNREGA was launched in India has remained untouched by drought in a water-scarce region

BANDLAPALLI, ANANTHAPURAMU DISTRICT

THOUGH THE peak summer season is yet to arrive, the barren hillocks surrounding Bandlapalli village in the district of Ananthapuramu have started radiating heat. Winds have become ferocious. The fear of drought is haunting the district, located in Andhra Pradesh’s rain shadow region of Rayalaseema. Yet V Narayana Reddy, 83, remains unperturbed. “Our village has evaded the curse of drought,” he says gleefully. Bandlapalli was the village from where MGNREGA was launched in the country on February 2, 2006—an event attended by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Reddy was then the sarpanch of the village and had shared dais with the dignitaries.

“We selected the village as it faced distress migration due to recurring droughts. Even media reports about the launch of the programme talked of abandoned lanes in the village,” recalls S V Chalapathi, the then assistant project director of the state government’s District Water Management Agency, responsible for implementing MGNREGA in Ananthapuramu. The district is so prone to droughts that in 1995 it was brought under the country’s Desert Development Programme for managing its watershed areas. But longer dry spells have only exacerbated the situation. In 2018-19, the district received 272.8 mm of rain, the least in its past 100 years and about half of its annual average of 550 mm. “Even this meagre rainwater used to flow downhill into one Pappuru tank (a pond-like waterbody) in the adjacent village,” says Reddy. “Though we used to get water supply from a bore well installed next to the tank, it was barely enough to meet daily requirements. We had to call water tankers almost every other day. Only a handful of people grew millets and groundnut for household consumption, while the rest would migrate to cities for work.”

So as soon as MGNREGA was launched, bringing water to his village was at the top of Reddy’s agenda. He wanted to divert the Handri Neeva Sujala Sravanthi canal flowing 3-4 km away. But his plan did not materialise as the canal is at a lower elevation. “Initially people did not know what to do under MGNREGA. So we started off by first training the panchayat members on how to plan and execute the programme and then by educating the residents about the benefits of improving soil and vegetation and of clearing and bunding of streams in and around the village,” recalls Chalapathi Over the past 15 years, shows data with the mandal (block) revenue office, Bandlapalli residents have planned and installed 900-odd water harvesting structures in and around the village under MGNREGA. The initiative has improved groundwater availability and increased people’s income. “We have recently installed a borewell in our village, which supplies water to most households,” says A Venkataramanamma, also a former sarpanch of the village.

In the meanwhile, the agriculture department encouraged the residents, mostly small and marginal farmers owning less than 2 ha, to grow horticultural and biodiesel crops using labour under MGNREGA. It has given 10 million plants to farmers since the inception of the scheme. “I got the pits for my plants dug and drip irrigation installed using labour under MGNREGA,” says C Ramakrishna, who grows sweet lime on 1 ha. His father C Peddakka is the first recipient of MGNREGA job card in the country. The increase in greenery has led to an increase in cattle numbers in the village. “Five dairies now procure milk from us,” says A Siva Rangaiah, a resident.

Distress migration from the village has nearly stopped. Only seasonal migration continues to places like Guntur where people work as farm labourers on chilli fields and get higher wages, says P Diwakar, MGNREGA programme officer of Narpala mandal, under which Bandlapalli village falls, explaining the changes brought out by MGNREGA. “But people migrate only after they exhaust their 100 days of guaranteed employment.”

B Anand Reddy, a farmer in the village who owns 1.5 ha, credits the programme for enabling him to get his son and daughter educated. He says the work gives him a fixed income every year and that he has not missed his quota of 100 days’ work ever since the launch of MGNREGA. His words show how reliant the village still is on the scheme for income, despite all the improvements. Every village resident DTEspoke to could remember his or her MGNREGA job card number. “The village can become self-reliant if our water woes are completely resolved,” says Narayana Reddy. He suggests digging trenches along the contours of a nearby hill range that overlooks Bandlapalli and holds a reserve forest. They can store water for long and effectively recharge the groundwater. “But we would need the Centre’s permission for this,” he adds.

REVERSE MIGRATION

People in Sidhi district now farm 10 months a year; even those who had quit farming are returning to it

BARMANI, SIDHI DISTRICT

IN 2006, when a DTEcorrespondent visited Barmani village in Madhya Pradesh’s Sidhi district, the environment was sombre. Barmani had just a handful of elders left as the rest had migrated for work. The village had a few dug wells that were either choked up with silt or had dried up. During the mid monsoon season, some of the residents would return to take up farming on a few patches. The correspondent had then spoke to a resident Nepal Singh who was excited about the scheme because it provided steady employment and also allowed the people to decide what structures to build.

Cut to the present. “I have many stories to update you,” says Nepal Singh, as DTEcatches up with him 15 years later. All the 2,300 residents are established farmers now with multiple crops to tend to. Farming keeps them busy for up to 10 months a year. “We now grow wheat and paddy, besides oilseeds and pulses,” says Singh. Rakesh Singh, an elected member of the village panchayat, says, “We have become food surplus over the past decade.” Every household now has a vegetable garden, which earns them extra income. Most residents claim they do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides and this commands a premium price for their produce.

This turn around has been possible, claim the residents, because the Sidhi gram sabha stuck to the MGNREGA rule book. In the past 15 years, it has approved three five-year plans as mandatory under the law. In all three plans, the village has ensured that at least 75 per cent of the works undertaken are related to water conservation. In the initial years of the scheme, the residents used the funds to construct check dams and contour trenches at a height across the undulating landscape of the village. Once the upper catchment was recharged, water was diverted to recharge existing dug wells that are close to the habitation. “Water is now available at 3 m below the ground,” says Narmada Prasad Tiwari, technical officer at the district water conservation department. There were a few takers for MGNREGA in the initial years. Popularity grew as residents realised its potential. Today, a third of Sidhi’s residents are enrolled in MGNREGA, says Shivam Singh, village employment assistant.

RIVER REVIVED

India’s largest group of women well diggers and a unique river conservation movement

POOKKOTTUKAVU, PALLASSANA AND POLPULLY, PALAKKAD DISTRICT

KERALA’S SECOND-largest river Bharathapuzha has already turned into a trickle in most parts of Palakkad, the state’s traditional rice bowl to which the river is a lifeline. Farmers in the district are struggling to irrigate their paddy fields. The temperature is around 41oC and sunburn cases are on a high. While almost all the 56 villages in Palakkad are water-scarce, three seem to have found sustainable solutions to tide over the harsh weather. The solutions are different, but in all three villages women are at the forefront of creating water structures.

Pookkottukavu village, located on the river basin, 35 km from the district headquarters, today has the country’s largest group of trained women well diggers. Whenever the 278-strong women workforce are called upon to dig wells under MGNREGA, they ensure that they also build rainwater harvesting structures alongside to compensate for the loss of groundwater. The district, though receives a healthy 2,300 mm rain annually, faces an extreme water crisis, allegedly due to over-extraction of groundwater by industries. K Jayadevan, former president of the village panchayat, recalls how the idea of training women for skilled labour was unthinkable when he first floated it 15 years ago. “When women got the opportunity, they did it differently and this has now helped the entire village,” he says. The panchayat plans to dig 200 wells along with rainwater harvesting structures, which, they believe, will make the area water surplus. M B Rajesh, a former Lok Sabha member from Palakkad, says the success of Pookkottukavu has inspired several other local bodies in the district, which have visited the village to study the implementation and monitoring of MGNREGA.

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