Intro: The Government is moving in the right direction in diluting MNREGA. But this should not be made a strategy for reducing poverty-alleviation expenditures of the Government. The task is to reorient the present expenditures on job-eating MNREGA into another scheme that creates jobs. The total expenditure on job creation and poverty alleviation must increase.
Poor people have certainly got relief by getting 100 days employment under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Migration to the cities has reduced. Farmers in Punjab are finding it difficult to get labour from Bihar because they have some alternative employment available under MNREGA near their homes. The wage rates for agricultural labour have shown a dramatic increase after implementation of MNREGA. The daily wages rose from Rs 120 per day to Rs 250 in Uttarakhand over a period of two years soon after MNREGA was implemented. Now the Government proposes to dilute this programme. Till now any unemployed person could demand 100 days work. There was no cap on the expenditures incurred on the scheme. The Government now proposes to put a cap on the total expenditure on the scheme that can be incurred. That means that some unemployed may not be provided employment due to lack of funds. The provision for compensation for delayed payment of wages is also to be removed. The scheme may be restricted to 200 backward districts of the country. These “reforms” will certainly deprive the poor people of the benefits they have obtained from the scheme in the last decade.
However, there are long term problems with MNREGA which need to be taken on board. On first sight, MNREGA appears to be along Gandhiji’s thinking. The Mahatma had said that he would rather give jobs to the naked instead of clothes. But ‘jobs’, for Gandhiji, meant commercial market-driven employment, not doles given out under MNREGA. Under commercial employment, the farm hand produces wheat that is sold in the market. Both the worker and the employer are not dependent upon government assistance in undertaking this activity. Such employment empowers the workers. They can stand up and demand their rights from the government because their livelihood is not dependent upon the government. The government gains as well. The industrialist pays taxes on the goods produced. Such employment is a win-win proposition for all concerned. The worker gets income, the employer makes profits and the government collects taxes. Such employment is sustainable.
“The best remedy is a subsidy for low-wage employment, paid to employers for every full-time low-wage worker they hire and calibrated to the employee’s wage cost to the firm.With such wage subsidies, competitive forces would cause employers to hire more workers, and the resulting fall in unemployment would cause most of the subsidy to be paid out as direct or indirect labour
—Nobel Laureate Prof Edmund Phelps
Employment generated under MNREGA stands on altogether different footing. The government first imposes tax on businesses to collect taxes. Some businesses fold up due to these taxes. Others businesses are not established because they are unable to pay the high wages. Farmers in Kerala, for example, have shifted from labour-intensive paddy cultivation to labour-extensive banana cultivation. Such shifts lead to less generation of employment as well as production. That leads to increase in the number of unemployed and more demand for relief under MNREGA. Businesses have to face two pressures from MNREGA—higher taxes and higher wages. In this way a regressive cycle of increasing taxes, increasing wages and reducing commercial employment is established.
Furthermore there is a huge problem of leakages. The relief is reached to the people through government bureaucracy. One village Pradhan told this writer that officials gave approval only to such schemes for which they could collect commissions on materials. For example, officials would approve the making of a holding wall along a river dam even thought it may be useless because they can collect commission of the wire net supplied. They would not approve making of trenches for ground water recharge because no material is required to be supplied for this work. As a result the cost of employment to the economy is much more than the amount reached to the beneficiaries.
The fate of unemployment compensation programmes in western countries confirms these observations. Nobel Laureate Prof Edmund Phelps says: “Although such programs have been substantial in Europe and the US, the working poor remain as marginalised as ever. Indeed, social spending has worsened the problem, because it reduces work incentives and thus creates a culture of dependency and alienation from the commercial economy, undermining labour force participation, employability, and employee loyalty.” The alternative according to Prof Phelps is like this: “The best remedy is a subsidy for low-wage employment, paid to employers for every full-time low-wage worker they hire and calibrated to the employee’s wage cost to the firm. The higher the wage cost, the lower the subsidy, until it has tapered off to zero. With such wage subsidies, competitive forces would cause employers to hire more workers, and the resulting fall in unemployment would cause most of the subsidy to be paid out as direct or indirect labour compensation. People could benefit from the subsidy only by engaging in productive work.”
One argument given in favour of MNREGA is that it enhances the bargaining power of the workers even if it does not create commercial employment. Workers from Bihar may demand Rs 300 per day from farmers of Punjab instead of Rs 200 previously because they now have Rs 100 available to them in their home under MNREGA. This is true. But such bargaining does not help in the long run. The result can be that workers may get high wages today but tomorrow the job itself may go. Workers of textile mills of Mumbai demanded high wages under the leadership of Datta Samant. The result was that the textile industry moved to Surat. Many factories were relocated outside Bengal because the State Government looked the other way when the workers staged gherao of the employers to demand higher wages.
We can see this happening in the United States today. Automakers are going bankrupt because workers are not willing to accept lower wages. This benefit of MNREGA is loud and clear but it has led to increase in labour costs in all sectors of the economy and ultimately has hit at employment generation.
Another argument in favour of MNREGA is that it has led to improvement in nutrition and rural consumption. This benefit is laudable. The question is whether the same increase can be obtained by alternative strategies so that the disincentive to generation of employment can be removed.
The way forwards it to implement an employment subsidy scheme while diluting MNREGA. The government could pay, say, Rs 500 per month towards the salary of each worker employed in a factory or a farm. Or government could pay both the employees’ and employers’ contribution to Provident Fund for all employees.
Such policy would lead to reduction of cost of labour. Farmers and industrialists will use less machines and more labour. The consequent increase in commercial activity will generate taxes for the government and the expenditures made on subsidies will be partially recouped. A fortuitous cycle of reduced labour cost, increased commercial activity and higher collection of taxes will be established.
The Government is moving in the right direction in diluting MNREGA. But this should not be made a strategy for reducing poverty-alleviation expenditures of the Government. The task is to reorient the present expenditures on job-eating MNREGA into another scheme that creates jobs. The total expenditure on job creation and poverty alleviation must increase.
Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala (The writer is a former Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)