IT IS OFTEN TOUTED as the ‘world’s largest social security scheme.’ Its critics call it the worst form of wasteful government expenditure. It is held responsible for the victory of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance coalition in the 2009 general elections. Now, the name of the ‘Father of the Nation’ has been prefixed to make the acronym even more cumbersome than it was. Love it or hate it, the National—now, Mahatma Gandhi—Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is here to stay, more than four years after it was implemented in February 2006 after its enactment in September 2005.
According to official statistics, at least one member belonging to more than 50 million households—almost all of them poor—has been provided employment opportunities under the NREGA. In the financial year ending on 31 March, the Government of India would have spent somewhere in the region of 7.5 billion dollars on this programme, which aims at legally mandating 100 days of unskilled manual labour per year to a member of a rural family seeking such employment, at a daily wage of 100 rupees (or just over two dollars).
The NREGA story goes way beyond cold statistics and legalese. At one level, the programme has been ambitiously conceived as the largest initiative on job creation in modern history. (Employment as a legally enforceable right has not been granted to the citizens of any other country.) The government claims that at its core, the act ensures manual employment to all those who demand it in rural areas, with the provision of unemployment allowance in case there is a failure to meet the demand for work.