Workfare and the politics of dignity


MGNREGA backgrounder, via I See India

The Effective States and Inclusive Development program has just published an interesting interview with Indrajit Roy, whose research focuses on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.  Key quote:

In rural India, my research found that despite having other alternatives, such as working for local farms and employers, when given a choice people would always choose to work on MGNREGA. I wondered why. At first glance it seemed this was because MGNREGA paid better –  but there were delays and corruption to payment, whereas local employers always paid on time, often in kind, which for rural poor people is more important than higher pay. So why do people want to work on MGNREGA?

What I found is that MGNREGA gives people dignity. People spoke of MGNREGA as providing dignified work, working for the government, whereas farmers and local employers often discriminated on the basis of caste. The rural poor tend to be from lower castes or untouchables, while farmers are from middle castes, so agricultural work entails all kinds of discriminatory attitudes towards workers. MGNREGA is not bound up in discriminatory relationships. For the rural poor the MGNREGA programme is a very practical manifestation of their rights, which demonstrates that the state of India cares for them.

What seems to matter most is that MGNREGA is a programme that allows people to live in dignity in their villages without having to leave to find work in towns. MGNREGA has not stopped migration from the villages, but it has allowed people to choose where and when they go, to space out their movements more than was previously possible. They are no longer desperate to leave their villages to find work.

There is a great deal of discord around MGNREGA. Farmers don’t like the programme because it  offers their labourers alternative opportunities, so it does not always promote a sense of community. But promoting egalitarian social relations and social justice often requires long-established community relations to be broken. Poor rural areas have seen popular movements for decades, but MGNREGA has weighed in on the side of the poor in their daily struggles. It has promoted a sense among the poor that the government cares for them and that they have more autonomy.