Can MGNREGA come to the rescue of rainfed agriculture?

The future of rainfed agriculture in India
The future of rainfed agriculture in India

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which continues to be the largest public employment program involving Rs.34,600 crore in a period of just five years since its implementation, was enacted on August 25, 2005 and renamed as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) on October 2, 2009.

The paper titled 'Exploring the potential of MGNREGA for revitalisation of rainfed agriculture in India' published in the International Journal of Agricultural Science and Research, dwells on the usefulness and potential of the programme for reviving rainfed agriulture in the country. This is because MGNREGA is an employment generation programme at its core, but it also focuses on enhancing agricultural activities in rainfed areas through work/activities associated with water harvesting, water conservation, drought proofing and renovation of traditional water bodies.

Rainfed farming in India 

Rainfed farming includes farming practices that rely on rainfall for water. This provides most of the food consumed by poor communities in India [1]. India ranks first among rainfed agricultural countries in terms of the extent and value of produce [2]. 68 percent of total net sown area in India falls under rainfed areas which are spread over 177 districts. Rainfed crops account for 48 percent area under food crops and 68 percent of the area under non-food crops in the country [3].

The paper informs that rainfed farming is very complex, diverse and risk prone and is mainly concentrated in five states in the country -- Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka -- and is characterised by low levels of productivity and low input needs that are mainly limited by the unavailability of sufficient water.

Between 1985 and 1995, the growth rate of rainfed production systems was higher than that of irrigated agriculture, which started declining gradually after 1995. Due to this, the government had to give high priority to the sustainable development of rainfed areas through the integrated watershed development approach, which had been accorded low public investments leading to its decline in the past.

In this context, the MGNREGA emerged as the strongest available instrument for investments in rainfed areas despite criticisms directed towards it in terms of wastage and inefficient management of resources.

The impact of MGNREGA on rainfed farming

The paper presents the findings of a study that examines the process of implementation and the impact of the MNREGA programme on rainfed agriculture in different states in India. The study utilised district wise data for 2012-13 to examine the following activities undertaken under the MGNREGA:

  • Water conservation and water harvesting
  • Renovation of traditional water bodies
  • Drought proofing works

Findings of the study

The study found that:

  • Water conservation and water harvesting are the two most important construction activities done under the MGNREGA with 180 districts having more than 1000 activities each under this category. Andhra Pradesh tops the list with 22 of its districts having more than 5000 activities, each being conducted under this head. 
  • In terms of renovation of traditional water bodies, Rajasthan shows the maximum concentration of work undertaken followed by Tamil Nadu, although the general intensity of this work is lesser than water conservation and water harvesting.
  • There is a high concentration of drought proofing work that involves afforestation and tree plantation work in Andhra Pradesh with 22 of its districts in the ‘above 5000 work’ category and none below that. Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are the only two states that have undertaken a major chunk of the drought proofing work.
  • Apart from water conservation and rainwater harvesting, work under the other two categories does not appear to be evenly distributed across the rainfed regions and this raises concerns about the optimum utilisation of MGNREGA for augmentation of rainfed agriculture

The paper ends by arguing that although MGNREGA has shown its potential for the development of infrastructure to support rainfed production systems like that of the example of Andhra Pradesh, the mismatch between activities undertaken among different heads points to gaps and the need for better strategic integration of MGNREGA with rainfed production systems.


1. Wikipedia (2015) Rainfed agriculture. Downloaded on 20th June 2015

2. IWMI (2011) Realising the potential of rainfed agriculture in India. Downloaded on 20th June 2015

3. Dhan foundation (Date not specified) Rainfed farming development. Downloaded on 20th June 2015