Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Latest on India’s largest poverty alleviation and rural employment generation program: MGNREGS is working

In a new working paper, Dutta, Murgai, Ravallion, and van de Walle argue that poorer families tend to have more demand for work on the scheme, and that (despite the un-met demand) the self-targeting mechanism allows it to reach relatively poor families and backward castes. The extent of the un-met demand is greater in the poorest states — ironically where the scheme is needed most. Labor-market responses to the scheme are likely to be weak. The scheme is attracting poor women into the workforce, although the local-level rationing processes favor men.

We do not find that the local-level processes determining who gets work amongst those who want it are generally skewed against the poor. There are sure to be places where this is happening (and qualitative field reports have provided examples). But it does not appear to stand up as a generalization. We do find evidence that the poor fare somewhat less well when it comes to the total number of days of work they manage to get on the scheme. However, despite the pervasive rationing we find, it is plain that the scheme is still reaching poor people and also reaching the scheduled tribes and backward castes.

Participation rates on the scheme are higher for poor people than others. This holds at the official poverty line, but the scheme is also reaching many families just above the official line. It is only at relatively high consumption levels that participation drops off sharply. This should not be interpreted as indicating that well-off families in rural India are turning to MGREGS. There may well be shocks that are not evident in the household consumption aggregates. And there may be individual needs for help that are not evident in those aggregates.

Targeting performance varies across states. Some of those living above the official poverty line in better-off states will no doubt be relatively poor, and need help from the scheme. The overall participation rate seems to be an important factor in accounting for these inter-state differences in targeting performance, with the scheme being more pro-poor and reaching scheduled tribes and backward castes more effectively in states with higher overall participation rates.

While the allocation of work through the local-level rationing process is not working against the poor, there are clearly many poor people who are not getting help because the employment guarantee is not in operation almost anywhere (Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu could be counted as the exceptions, where 80% or more of those who want work got it). And other potential benefits of the scheme to poor people are almost certainly undermined by the extensive rationing, notably the empowerment gains and the insurance benefits. The first-order problem for MGNREGS is the level of un-met demand.

While the scheme is clearly popular with women—who have a participation rate that is double their participation rate in the casual labor market—the rationing process does not appear to be favoring them. We also find evidence of a strong effect of relative wages on women‘s participation—both wages on the scheme relative to the market wage and the male-female differential in market wages. As one would expect, poor families often choose whether it is the man or the woman who goes to the scheme according to relative wages.

It has been claimed by some observers that the scheme is driving up wages for other work, such as in agriculture; some observers see this as a good thing, others not. For India as a whole, we find that the scheme‘s average wage rate was roughly in line with the casual labor market in 2009/10. This might look like a competitive labor market equilibrium, but that view is hard to reconcile with the extensive rationing we find. Interestingly, we do find a significant negative correlation between the extent of rationing and the wage rate in the casual labor market relative to the wage rate on the scheme. Although this is suggestive, on closer inspection we are more inclined to think that other economic factors are at work. Indeed, the correlation largely vanishes when we control for the level of poverty. Poorer states tend to see both more rationing of work on the scheme and lower casual wages—possibly due to a greater supply of labor given the extent of rural landlessness.

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.

For more on NREGA, see this. It looks like cost of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the largest employment guarantee public works program in the world, is coming down. Its cost as a share of GDP, total expenditure and revenue receipts is decreasing and is expected to be 0.45 percent, 3.19 percent, and 5.08 percent respectively in fiscal year 2011-2012. Here is more on MGNREGA.

NREGA budget (Rs Crore)
2006-07 2007-08 2008-09** 2009-10** 2010-2011* 2011-2012*
GDP, current prices# 4,293,672 4,986,426 5,582,623 6,550,271 7,877,947 8,980,860
Total expenditure 583,387 712,671 900,953 1,020,838 1,108,749 1,257,729
Revenue receipts 434,387 541,864 562,173 614,497 682212 789892
NREGA allocated budget 11,300 12,000 30,000 39,100 40,100 40,100
NREGA/GDP 0.26 0.24 0.54 0.60 0.51 0.45
NREGA/Exp 1.94 1.68 3.33 3.83 3.62 3.19
NREGA/Rev 2.60 2.21 5.34 6.36 5.88 5.08

Source: Calculation based on data from Union Budgets; *estimate; **revised estimate'; # Economic Survey 2010-11

In FY 2010-2011, 5.49 crore households were provided employment (100 days employment  on demand to each household during lean season). The total persondays of employment created was 257.15 persondays (crore). Of this, the share of SCs, STs, and women accounted for 30.63%, 20.85%, and 47.73% respectively.