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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

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August 23, 2020

The Lok Sabha Passes the MGNREGA

On 23 August, 2005, the Lok Sabha, the Indian lower house of Parliament, passed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The act was a sweeping piece of legislation meant to guarantee steady employment, and wages, for millions of workers in rural areas of the country.

From its very beginnings, India was founded on socialist principles, inspired more by the left-wing economic theories of Harold Laski (who taught a great many of independent India’s founders) than by the runaway capitalism of the then-ascendant United States. In 1951, one in two of India’s citizens lived in poverty; it was clear to India’s first leaders and economists that a coordinated and vast effort was needed to lift them out of it. Under the Planning Commission of India, the state adopted a series of Five-Year Plans modelled on those of the Soviet Union, and social services accounted for a large portion of India’s budget. The Public Distribution System, a vast organization meant to supply basic food supplies to India’s poor for free or at heavily subsidised prices, actually predated India’s independence, but was quickly expanded by independent India’s first government. The Food Corporation of India was set up in 1964 to further centralize purchasing and distribution. The National Food Security Act, 2013, a project championed heavily by the then-Indian National Congress party government, was the latest in a long series of food subsidy laws and programmes, extending coverage across the country with a focus on schools, women, and children. India’s vast food subsidies and distribution mechanisms, perhaps unmatched for their scope - some 67% of the population is technically eligible - are often cited as a visible and enduring piece of India’s commitment to social security.

Of course, food only comprised one of two important planks of India’s social safety nets. Rural employment and land redistribution were central to independent India’s efforts from the very beginning, and their principles were written into India’s Constitution. MGNREGA was the latest in a series of rural employment schemes and programmes stretching back to the 1950s, most of which have been forgotten - the Rural Manpower Programme, the Rural Work Programme, the Crash Scheme for Rural Employment, the Food for Work Programme, and so on. India’s agriculture grew, but its population grew even faster; emergency programmes were created and renewed every few years, but there always seemed to be too few jobs and too many people. Unemployment drove poverty, crime, and even insurgency; from the late 1960s onwards, unemployed rural and tribal citizens filled the ranks of the Naxalite-Maoist movement across India. Something needed to be done, something comprehensive and far-reaching.

Curiously, the foundations of MGNREGA were laid at a time when India looked ready to discard much of its socialist attitude. Amidst a faltering economy, a balance of payments crisis, and a dearth of capital and investment, India began to rapidly liberalize in the first years of the 1990s under the administration of Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. At the same time, Narasimha Rao and his advisors began drafting what would eventually become the MGNREGA. Rural employment programs were consolidated and combined in those years, and the framework for the creation and distribution of jobs at the village level was laid down - a sign of India’s commitment to its social safety nets even at a time of accelerating capitalism. Schemes were launched in stages - the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana, in 1993, for instance - that were meant to lead up to a grander employment project. Narasimha Rao, and the Congress’, defeat in the 1996 general elections set the project back, but once back in power, the Congress administration finally passed the MGNREGA legislation in 2005. In theory, rural workers who were eligible were now guaranteed 100 days of paid work a year at set wages, administered at the village level. Over the following years, the program was rolled out throughout the country, affecting countless millions.

Was it a success? Electorally, yes. The victory of a Congress-led coalition in the 2009 general elections has been attributed at least in part to the popularity of MGNREGA, which still features prominently in Congress campaign rhetoric. Economically? Mixed. MGNREGA has been a frequent focus of worldwide economic study, inspiring at least one full-length book on its implementation and results. It’s become clear that the program quickly became infested with corruption, inefficiencies, and endless delays; in many parts of North India, it was hijacked entirely by local landowners and elites. Then again, this shouldn’t have been a surprise; the Public Distribution System for food is notoriously riddled with leakages and corrupt middlemen at every level, with the states of Bihar and Jharkhand being particularly bad. In many ways, MGNREGA is reflective of many of India’s institutions - grand in scope, optimistic in intention, and often badly let down in implementation.

Sahaj Sankaran

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