The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is one of the largest social protection programmes in the world, providing guarantee of income to some 55 million people every year. The Act and associated schemes (MGNREGS) are recognised by the Government of India as initiatives to address the problem of climate change, while simultaneously improving the livelihoods of the poor, particularly agriculture-dependent rural people, who are facing growing threats to their livelihoods from increasing climate variability.
MGNREGS can support rural populations’ resilience by providing income in the short term, but also through a devolved national architecture with a huge potential for creating assets that can improve long-term resilience. For example, resilience can be delivered by creating integrated watershed management (IWM) assets, which historically have played a primary role in addressing poverty and vulnerability in India.
Several studies have explored the resilience benefits provided by social protection programmes globally, and more specifically in India. Despite a growing body of evidence on MGNREGS, there remains disagreement on whether and to what extent MGNREGS has provided and can provide climate resilience benefits beyond short-term income provision.
The recent working paper ‘MGNREGS: Integrated watershed management and climate resilience’ by Emilie Beauchamp and David Paul Pertaub explores whether the assets delivered under MGNREGS can contribute to long-term climate adaptation for India’s rural poor. Using desk-based policy review triangulated by multi-stakeholder key informant interviews, it investigates the evolution of the policy framing and design features of MGNREGS.
The report first reviews the evolution of key Indian programmes that have addressed poverty, vulnerability and climate resilience, with a focus on integrated watershed management (IWM) approaches that have played a critical role in policy and practices to build resilience in rural rainfed agriculture areas as a basis for resilience programming in Indian policies.
It then reviews the current challenges experienced by national and local actors which limit the delivery of resilience outcomes through MGNREGS’s assets. A set of eight best practices observed in the planning and delivery of assets under MGNREGS which promote long-term resilience.
Over the years, MGNREGS has provided guidance for applying an IWM approach to the creation of some of its permissible assets. Despite ongoing challenges, best practices have emerged, showing the possibility of improving the resilience of beneficiaries − especially when best practices for IWM assets have been adopted.
Given that MGNREGS is primarily designed to provide sporadic income in times of shock, there are inherent tensions in managing expectations that MGNREGS must, alone and systematically, deliver long-term resilience. There is a clear need for convergence with other IWM activities and other programmes in order for MGNREGS to be able to fulfil the dual goals of income provision and long-term resilience.
While the national Act provides little space for changes to the legislation, we found that state − and district-level authorities have the power to prioritise and catalyse convergence, organisation and resilience under their jurisdiction. Rather than a systemic change in how MGNREGA works, a change of perspective and practical improvements by key institutional actors can unlock longer-term resilience from created assets.
These changes can be implemented through two key windows.
The first is through harnessing the dedication and commitment of state and district officials, who have the discretion and authority to prioritise convergence, coordination and a climate focus in their implementation of MGNREGS.
The second is through improving annual guidelines and the Master Circular, which could crystalise the best available science and evidence from MGNREGS.
We identified three areas of opportunities for change:
Expanding the focus from physical to social resilience
Increasing the focus on the delivery chain mechanisms for asset delivery (and channelling appropriate funding) could increase resilience by increasing asset quality while building better governance systems for their delivery. It is now well evidenced that there are several dimensions of resilience beyond assets and livelihoods.
As such, MGNREGS could better encourage the social dimensions of resilience by adding a range of social activities that ensue from assets as permissible types of work. Tracking and assessing differentiated impacts of MGNREGS is important to enable the scheme to evolve, especially with regard to understanding MGNREGS’s impact on vulnerable social groups.
Incentivising converging relationships
Creating assets that deliver long-term resilience via MGNREGS requires convergence between MGNREGS and other programmes. Creating positive long-term outcomes requires the alignment of a series of social, economic, technical and contextual factors that can only be achieved by linking programmes.
However, there are no convergence programmes today that include a focus on IWM − effectively leaving a gap in the potential for MGNREGS to deliver long-term resilience for the rural poor. Ultimately, reprioritising IWM through new or other revised national programmes is essential to provide the mass asset creation required to respond to climate change and promote resilience in rural areas.
Focusing on district governance can help circumvent national programmatic issues. Districts are the scale at which integrated watershed development is both administratively and institutionally feasible, as recommended by the MGNREGA guidelines. At this scale, system externalities and trade-offs between priorities identified by local levels can be catalogued and potentially reconciled − as exemplified by successful case studies in this report.
Acknowledging civil society organisations (CSOs) as integral parts of the MGNREGS system to support convergence and cross-programme linkages is critical for backing up governmental institutional memory. CSOs are key agents of the convergence puzzle, as they can bring other types of funding from multilateral and bilateral development agencies to add another layer of convergence. More importantly, CSOs’ expertise for facilitating participatory approaches is critical for successful community involvement.
Adopting a long-term adaptation perspective
Despite MGNREGS guidelines emphasising the need for using geographic information system (GIS) technologies in asset planning as part of IWM practices, few initiatives systematically use climate decision-making tools that integrate different forward-looking climate scenarios.
There is a need to systematically incorporate data-driven evidence with participatory climate risk and vulnerability assessments in the MGNREGS planning process at multiple scales. Longer-term planning of assets within a landscape is necessary to produce fewer but successfully adaptive assets and avoid creating a panoply of maladaptive assets.
Climate change is expected to drastically affect rainfed arid and semi-arid regions; assets and structures planned for the current or previous climate may not be viable even on a short-term horizon. Under the current short-term perspective, which aims to complete block-level work plans within two years, it is difficult to envisage that assets will remain useful for more than five, perhaps ten years.
The full paper can be viewed here
Citation: Emilie Beauchamp and David Paul Pertaub (2021) MGNREGS: integrated watershed management and climate resilience. IIED. Working Paper, IIED, London. http://pubs.iied.org/20676IIED