Far from being ‘useless’, the MNREGA helps the impoverished and resilient poor earn a decent living.

Famously on the floor of Parliament, Prime Minister Modi dismissed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) as a ‘living monument’ of the previous governments’ failures, condemning millions of impoverished people to survive by ‘digging ditches’.

This spring near Bhim in Rajasthan, I had the rare experience of labouring on an MGNREGA site. Those few hours helped me understand more than reams of reading about what the world’s largest social protection programme actually means to those who toil on its sites. Friends in the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) have established a magnificent School for Democracy in the semi-desert plains bordering the Aravalli range in Rajsamand district, Rajasthan. To this school, I took a team of 60 Aman Biradari peace and justice and homeless rights workers for a week-long reflection on democracy. Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy and Lalsingh, MKSS comrades, felt that spending a day actually toiling on a MGNREGA site would teach us more than days of classroom lectures. They were right.

Uncertain about what to expect, we awkwardly emerged from our bus, and were quickly divided into work-gangs of five persons each. The ‘work-mate’ explained the task: digging earth to build an embankment for a small irrigation tank. Each gang was allotted a few square-metres land from which they were to dig soil and transport to the embankment wall. We were handed spades to dig and flat buckets to carry soil on our heads. He also clarified the rules for measurement. We would work for four hours or half a work-day, but could be paid a half-day wage only if we performed the minimum task-rate. These wages would be paid into the account of the regular MGNREGA workers, mostly women, who sat on surrounding mounds bemusedly watching us work.

My gang comprised all formerly homeless men and women from Hyderabad who had lived in our shelters and now graduated into volunteers with other homeless people. My gang divided the work among themselves. The young men would dig and, in deference to my age, I was allotted the relatively less taxing task of carrying away excavated soil.

The first 15 minutes were cheerful, with laughter and jibes being tossed between neighbouring gangs. But before long, the unaccustomed physical labour began to extract its toll. I had never used my head before to carry heavy weights, and it felt sore. The spring sun was gentle, but still the sunlight began to scorch as we sweated. One young man suddenly fainted. We carried him to the shade and the regular women workers helped revive him. He was shame-faced, but everyone encouraged him. One worker served water from earthen pitchers, and people gratefully gulped down large quantities, washing their perspiring faces.

Four hours passed as though they would never end. When our prescribed half-day labour was concluded, we were relieved. We rested, and then wanted to know how much we had earned. After haggling with the measurement, we found we had earned less than Rs. 80 each.

We were both sobered and humbled by how hard it was to earn so little money. But there was also a strange sense of pride, of achievement and of dignity. “How can anyone call this ‘unskilled work’?” wondered one young colleague. It required teamwork, planning and careful strategy. Others spoke of the solidarity built by working in teams, how we quickly learnt to capitalise on our respective strengths, as much as compensate for our weaknesses.

We sat for a while with the regular workers, mostly women; many with their small children in tow. We explained who we were, our work with survivors of communal violence, hunger and homeless street people. We asked them what they thought of the work they did.

Their evaluation was strikingly different from that of the Prime Minister. They complained that wages were long delayed, that muster rolls are sometimes fudged, and most panchayats don’t ensure their full entitlement of 100 days. But none regarded the work as futile. Instead they spoke of their collective contributions to slowly build the village infrastructure, to improve their lands and conserve water, to find alternatives to farm work if they were paid too little and, above all, to offer them a dignified alternative to hunger, to bring more food to their children, to resist indebtedness and distress migration to distant lands.

I wondered then if everyone in Parliament could be required to work even a few hours at an MGNREGA worksite, then maybe the work would not seem the pointless digging of ditches and a monument to public failure. Instead they may recognise this to be for impoverished and resilient millions a precious avenue for dignified survival.