NREGA is a flagship rural employment generation and livelihood program of the UPA government in India. This social welfare program guarantees one hundred days of employment per year at the prevailing minimum wage rate for unskilled labor.
The Act came into force on February 2, 2006 with an aim to “directly touch lives of the poor and promote inclusive growth.” Along with the objectives of boosting rural economy and enhancing overall (inclusive) economic growth, this public works program was also designed to prop up purchasing power of poor people; stabilize their household income; assure livelihood security to the most marginalized groups; accelerate the pace of meeting the MDGs; and strengthen natural resource management through works that address causes of chronic poverty like drought, deforestation and soil erosion. One of the objectives of the program is to make the process of employment generation sustainable.
It started with a pilot project in the state of Maharashtra in 1965 with an aim to provide relief to poor farmers during famine and drought. An Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) Act was passed in 1979 by the state legislature, widening the reach of the pilot program to the entire state. The federal government picked upon the success of the program and implemented (under Phase I) it in 200 of the most backward districts on February 2, 2006. It was expanded to cover an additional 130 districts in 2007/2008 (under Phase II) and the remaining (under Phase III) 285 districts (in total 615 rural districts) on April 1, 2008. In 34 states, a total of 45,019,215 households (as of September 2, 2009) were provided employment in 2008/09.
- It guarantees employment within 15 days if a qualified person applies for employment application at a local administrative authority. The person should be willing to work on a piece-rate basis, which is fixed so that an average person working diligently for seven hours a day would earn an amount equal to the minimum wage.
- Adult members of a rural household willing to do unskilled manual work should have to apply for registration to the local Gram Panchayat, which, after verification, will issue a Job Card to the household. The Job Card has photographs of all adult members of the household who are willing to work under the Act. The Job Card holding household has to submit a written application for employment (with time and duration of work sought) to the Gram Panchayat, which then provides employment for up to at least 15 days.
- Work has to be provided within 5 km radius of the village or else extra wages of 10 percent have to be paid to workers. Moreover, working and living facilities (safe drinking water, shade for children and periods of rest for workers, first-aid box for emergency treatment and minor injuries, and safety equipments and measures for health hazards connected with work) have to be provided.
- The cost structure is designed in such a way that state governments have an incentive to offer unskilled manual work to qualified applicants; else they have to cover unemployment allowance if they fail to provide work within 15 days of application for work. The central government covers wage payment of unskilled manual workers, and three-fourths of material cost, wages of skilled and semi-skilled workers. The central government also bears administrative expenses, salary, and allowances of Program Officers, his supporting staff and worksite facilities. State governments should meet the cost of unemployment allowance, one-fourth of material cost, wages of skilled and semi-skilled workers, and administrative cost of State Employment Guarantee Council.
- One-third of the work is reserved for women.
- Works should be specifically geared toward rural development: water conservation and harvesting, affforestation, rural connectivity, flood control and protection, repair of embankments, construction of drinking water facilities like digging new ponds/tanks and building dams, and micro-irrigation facilities, among others.
- Wages have to be consistent with the Minimum Wages Act 1948 for agricultural labors in the State, unless the federal government notifies a wage rate, which should not be less than Rs 60 per day. The average daily wage of agricultural labors under NREGA has risen from Rs 65 in 2006 to Rs 83 in 2008. Wages are paid on a weekly basis and should not exceed a fortnight in case of delay in payment.
- Each district is allowed to prepare a shelf of projects (see below for the list of permissible works). At least 50 percent of works have to be allotted to Gram Panchayats for execution and a 60:40 wage to material ratio has to be maintained. The use of contractors and labor displacing machinery are prohibited. The Gram Sabha is responsible for social audit.
- Water conservation and water harvesting
- Drought proofing (including afforestation and tree plantation)
- Irrigation canals including micro and minor irrigation works
- Provision of irrigation facility to land owned by SC/ST/beneficiaries under Indira Aawas Yojana (which was launched in 1997-78 with the aim to help construction of new dwelling units as well conversion of unserviceable weak houses to solid houses for use by the marginalized sections of the society who are living below the poverty line)
- Renovation of traditional water bodies including desalting of tanks
- Land development
- Flood control and protection works including drainage in water logged areas
- Rural connectivity to provide all weather access
- Other works notified by the Central/State government
 On October 2, 2009, NREGA was renamed as Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
 "Employment guarantee quickening India’s march towards MDGs." UNDP. www.undp.org.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=536&Itemid=593 (accessed September 3, 2009).
 NREGA Implementation Status Report for the financial year 2008-2009 (http://nrega.nic.in/writereaddata/mpr_out/nregampr_0809.html). A total of 45430187 households demanded employment in 2008-2009.
Impact of NREGA:
- The increase in wage earning has led to strengthening of livelihood resource base of the rural poor. A total of 45112792 households were provided jobs in 2008-2009 and 21632.48 lakhs persondays of employment were generated. Women participation equaled to 10357.27 lakhs persondays of work.
- Some states saw rise in minimum wages after the implementation of NREGA (see below).
- -Maharashtra (Rs 47 to Rs 72)
- -Utter Pradesh (Rs 58 to Rs 100)
- -Bihar (Rs 68 to Rs 81)
- -Karantaka (Rs 62 to 74)
- -West Bengal (Rs 64 to Rs 75)
- -Rajasthan (Rs 73 to Rs 100)
- -Madhya Pradesh (Rs 58 to Rs 85)
- -Himachal Pradesh (Rs 65 to Rs 75)
- -Nagaland (Rs 66 to Rs 100)
- -Jammu & Kashmir (Rs 45 to Rs 70)
- -Chhattisgarh (Rs 58.73 to Rs 72.23)
- The program has high work participation of marginalized groups like Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) and women. In FY 2008-2009, the SCs, STs, and women were provided with 6335.9 and 5501.64 and 10357.27 persondays (in lakhs) of work respectively.
- It has strengthened natural resource base of rural India. Water conservation and water harvesting, provision of irrigation facility to the land owned by labors, and rural connectivity were the top physical assets constructed in FY 2008-2009.
- The central government has tried to include the poor into the financial system by encouraging states to make wage payment through bank and post office accounts of wage seekers. A total of 33027094 and 5361037 individual and joint bank accounts respectively were opened in FY 2008-2009. Similarly, a total of 28137985 and 2073898 individual and joint post office accounts respectively were opened last fiscal year. In total, Rs 1083270 lakhs were disbursed through bank and post office accounts.
- The government claims that NREGA has led to enhancement of agricultural productivity (through water harvesting, check dams, ground water recharging, improved moisture content, check in soil erosion, and micro-irrigation), stemming of distressed migration, increased access to markets and services through rural connectivity works, supplementing household incomes, increase in women workforce participation ratios, and the regeneration of natural resources.
Concerns about NREGA:
- Assets created by the poor people might be used primarily by elites, thus benefiting the poor little from the projects they themselves created.
- Public assets created by the program might simply crowd out or substitute private investment, thus net benefit might be very small.
- Participation rates are low because of the nature of projects undertaken, elaborate registration procedures, long distances to work-sites and low financial outlays.
- Potential benefits of assets may not be fully realized because there is no follow-up maintenance.
- A larger funding allocation to the poorest regions would help improve targeting, as well as confer substantially larger income stabilization benefits.
 ODI, Inter-Regional Inequality Facility. "The Maharastra Employment Guarantee Scheme." ODI Policy Brief 6 (2006): 1-4.; Note that if employment place is not within a radius 5 km, transport allowance and 10 percent extra living allowance is provided. This also deters women from actively participating in the program.