Employment Programs By Any Other Name...


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Is it an employment program? Is it an anti-poverty program? Is it a safety net? Is it a disaster management program, is it…..? Actually, it’s all of these. Public works programs are both good development and good politics. India’s National Employment Guarantee Scheme (now called the Mahatma Gandhi EGS) , despite its implementation challenges, is fast becoming the stuff international lore is made of.

Demographers talk of the diffusion effects of ideas of low fertility and other behaviors. And while South Asian countries have a history of public works programs as safety nets – a history that actually goes back to the Maurya Empire in circa 3rd century BC - the diffusion effect of NREGS across South Asia is apparent. This is as much due to the urgent employment needs in all countries in the region, as due to the fact that the Congress victory in India was purported to have hinged significantly on NREGS.

Consider some South Asian countries. Nepal has several public works programs based on both cash and food. In the remote and intractable hill districts (known by the omnibus category of the “Karnali Zone”) the government implements a food for work program, for which the World Food Program delivers food. There are similar programs in southern Nepal. Last summer I was in Sunsari - the part of the Tarai that was ravaged by the Kosi floods - and it was quite clear that the demand of public works programs far outweighs the supply.

Bangladesh similarly has a long history of both food and cash based public works programs. Its success in dealing with the chronic floods and cyclones is well known, but lesser known is the fact that public works programs have come to the rescue of households who have been hit by these disasters. Sri Lanka is considering similar interventions for its internally displaced persons.

In response to the food and fuel crisis about eighteen or so months ago, both Nepal and Bangladesh stepped up their coverage of employment generation programs. Bangladesh’s 100 Day Employment Program was evaluated independently by BRAC and the World Bank. The results have been very encouraging, showing reasonably good targeting of the poorest and efficient delivery of the program. Building on the experience of the 100 Day Employment Generation Program the Government of Bangladesh is now implementing the Employment Generation Program for the Poorest (EGPP), a cash-based workfare program.

But Bangladesh’s EGPP is very different from India’s NREGS. While both are based on a long history of implementing public works, yet the India program has a guarantee that entitles individuals to receive compensation if the work they seek is not provided within a certain period. The state has accepted and in fact co-opted an “entitlement approach” that was initially pushed hard by a formidable civil society movement. Citizen monitoring is built into the NREGS design and social audits are mandated twice a year even implementation uneven across states. Moreover, NREGS is linked to a larger grassroots movement that questions the manner in which in India’s growth has affected the poorest and the high levels of malnutrition that persist despite overall reduction of poverty. A movement that is aided by judicial activism, citizen vigilance and an activist intelligentsia. Bangladesh, despite its renowned NGO movement does not have similar movements that demand accountability from the state.

Why is this?


Maitreyi Bordia Das

Manager, Global Programs, Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience and Land Global Practice

Join the Conversation

Cindy Berman
March 10, 2010

Excellent article Maitreyi - highlighting not only the important links between social protection & employment, but also the critical value of active social movements and civil society voices in promoting the idea of entitlement as citizens. The NREGS in India also represents for many excluded people such as Dalits, Muslims, disabled, women or older people - the first real opportunity to exercise equal rights and opportunities to this scheme as others in their society who don't face such levels of discrimination. Identifying critical pathways out of poverty - linking social protection and public works schemes with skills training & growth opportunities, as well as tackling gender inequality - will be important tasks ahead as we learn the lessons of such schemes and help to strengthen their design.

Maitreyi Bordia Das
March 10, 2010

Will keep you posted on the Bangladesh program.

Ram Bansal
March 11, 2010

Work and administrative culture in India is so much corrupt that even good schemes are misused for showing mercy to the poor. In my village, the persons engaged to work under NEGS worl hardly for two hours and get the attendance for the whole day. the village chief uses this scheme to get popular and in the process, cultivates a mentality of beggars in the working people who keep on seeking mercies for survival.

Secondly, the funds are not effectively utilized. In my village, a rectangular pit was dug last year under this scheme in the name of a pond near a large village pond. The place chosen was so far used to bury dead bodies of children, so now there is no place left for burying children's dead bodies. The new pit has never seen a drop of water in it and work force is shown to work on the pit's repairs again and again.

A remote view of the scheme, like that of Maitreyi, are no real representations of things. I have been insisting on IEG of World Bank to send a team to my village and see the reality of things and misuse of funds in public works.

Jatinder Handoo
March 16, 2010

Nice piece Maitreyi.

According to me what makes the substantial difference in the Indian scenario is SMART Governance and measurable implementation with the aid of technology-(Biometric smart cards being used to deliver cash ). The fundamental difference at theoretical level is NREGA is based on "right based approach" and enjoys public policy priority in India.

Shilp Verma
March 18, 2010

I strongly feel that an entitlement-centric view of NREGA is dangerous. NREGA has immense potential but there's also a good chance that it will end up helping the (relatively) rich and bypass the poor completely.

It's one thing to pay people to dig a hole and then pay them again to fill it up but if the objective is merely entitlement, simple cash transfer schemes are much better and cheaper. NREGA can and should be used to achieve much more than that. For instance, 3/4th of NREGA works are directly or indirectly related to the country's water resources - check dams, pond de-silting, watershed activities, group wells etc. NREGA offers a great opportunity to enhance rural water security, provided that the right works are chosen and the quality of work implementation is maintained.

Like for most public works programs, NREGA's self-evaluations largely measure spending or, at best, number of days of employment provided, and not on the quality of work undertaken. While it is commendable that the government is keen on making NREGA works transparent, good intentions on their own do not guarantee good results. Building water harvesting structures that do not harvest any water nor enhance groundwater recharge, digging ponds that never fill up and paving roads that will get washed away in the next monsoon is hardly the best way to spend public money - even if employment guarantee is ensured.

The government needs to take a more ambitious view of NREGA's potential and aim for more than mere doles and entitlements.