Abreu_IMG_3627Pranab Bardhanmaitreesh-ghatakashok-kotwaldilip-mookherjeedebraj_rayOn October 23rd Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya argued Modi is right to confine NREGA to the 200 poorest districts. Dilip Abreu, Pranab Bardhan, Maitreesh Ghatak, Ashok Kotwal, Dilip Mookherjee and Debraj Ray respond to the critique of the Act, arguing that although it has shortcomings there are significant cash and non-transfer benefits that make it worth building on.

Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, hereafter BP, have argued for phasing out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in favour of cash transfers (“Rural Inefficiency Act“, ToI, 23 October) and have criticised some of the arguments made in an appeal to the Prime Minister by a group of economists that that we were part of. It’s surprising that they have chosen to make a case against NREGA based on prior beliefs rather than on evidence that is now available (a survey by Dilip Mookherjee of the empirical literature on NREGA can be found here).

BP’s main point is that NREGA is an inefficient “instrument of shifting income to the poor”. They even claim that it costs five rupees to transfer one rupee to NREGA workers.

Their argument: consider a worker who currently earns Rs80 a day in the private sector but decides to work on NREGA for Rs130 instead. She earns an extra Rs50, but this costs the government Rs248: Rs130 in wages, Rs56 in material (assuming a material-labour ratio of 30-70), and Rs62 in leakages (assuming 25% of expenditure is embezzled).

This argument is misleading.

The first concern is whether potential NREGA workers have alternative gainful employment. Often they don’t, as NREGA work is provided mainly in the slack season. This is especially true for women, who make up more than half of all NREGA workers. With involuntary unemployment, the question of “currently earning Rs80 a day in the private sector” does not arise: so the income gain is Rs130, not Rs50.

If, for the sake of argument, workers do currently earn Rs80, it is only true that the gain for the NREGA worker is Rs50. However, what matters is the gain, direct and indirect, for all workers.  In this scenario, there will typically be a wage increase (though not “by leaps and bounds”, as attributed by BP to unspecified proponents), which benefits all employed workers. This is possible even when NREGA employment is wholly concentrated in the slack season, if higher slack earnings tighten peak labour supply. Even small increases in the market wage translate into huge aggregate benefits, given the size of the labour force under consideration. As for those who might argue such wage gains for poor landless workers are inflationary, we would direct their attention to subsidies enjoyed by rich farmers instead.

In short, only extreme assumptions—unspecified by BP—would yield a net gain as low as they claim.

Second, BP ignore non-transfer benefits, starting with NREGA assets. Rural roads, soil conservation, flood control, groundwater recharge and land improvement projects may not shine as brightly as the smart cities BP endorse, but they do contribute to India’s development. A recent study of over 4,000 NREGA assets across Maharashtra, by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, found that most of them are valued by local residents. They also ignore the evidence on other benefits: for instance, empowerment of women who work in large numbers, reduction in distress migration and impact on schooling achievements.

In other words, BP’s argument is based on inflating the costs of NREGA and deflating the benefits. This accounting spills over to their espousal of cash transfers: how a cash transfer system will identify the poor is glossed over, as is the inherent self-selection advantage of NREGA (clearly only the most needy are willing to do hard manual work), which after all provides a conditional cash transfer. If instead BP intend cash transfers to be universal to avoid the problem of targeting, there would be enormous leakages in terms of transfers to the well-off.

BP assert that the poor wish to exit from public schemes. That assertion appears irrelevant here, as the large unmet demand for NREGA shows no sign of the poor wanting out. National Sample Survey data for 2009/10 show that in Uttar Pradesh 36% of rural households wanted to work under NREGA, of whom slightly less than half actually did. The problem will not disappear if the programme is confined only to the 200 poorest districts: even in richer states like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat respectively 31%, 20% and 38% of rural households want to work on that programme. For India as a whole, among the poorest two quintiles of rural households, over 40% of those who want NREGA employment did not get it. This reflects bad governance (which was worse in poorer states), not a mass exodus. What is called for is better implementation and oversight, not a dismantling of the programme. After all, the new government has been elected on the promise of improving governance.

Shortcomings of NREGA implementation have certainly been reported: these include delays in wage payments, benami (unnamed) payments, unmet work requests and material irregularities. Yet numerous careful studies based on independent household survey data have shown significant benefits in terms of income security for the most vulnerable. NREGA provides employment to some 50 million rural households, affecting the lives of up to 250 million individuals. When more than 90% of the workforce is informal and lacks access to social security, this is a critical intervention in terms of providing a safety net. Leakage rates remain substantial, but they are declining and no higher than in many other subsidy programs.

We share BP’s lament about “the folly of embracing substantial spending programmes unmatched by revenues”, but not their inference that “this alone justifies the decision to confine NREGA to 200 poorest districts”. To put matters in perspective, consider estimates by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy of total “non-merit” subsidies (implicit and explicit, Centre and States) to the better-off in India: about 9% of GDP, over 20 times the expenditure on NREGA (less than 0.4% of GDP). Surely, there are better ways of ensuring fiscal responsibility than to deprive millions of workers of an important (and sometimes crucial) source of livelihood.

We do not claim that all is well with NREGA. The programme needs better design and implementation, not slow suffocation. In the public debate surrounding NREGA, differences of opinion are inevitable, and even welcome, but it is important to pay close attention to the considerable evidence that has accumulated.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Times of India on 9th November 2014.

Cover image: “Work in progress at an NREGA site under ‘apna khet, apna kaam’ (my field, my work). Medhbanchi, Dungarpur, Rajasthan”. Credit: flickr/UN Women Asia & the Pacific

About the Authors

The authors are professors of economics at Princeton University, University of California Berkeley, London School of Economics, University of British Columbia, Boston University and New York University respectively.

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