India's Rural Employment Guarantee Act

Madvi Madka, from the Central Indian state of Chattisgarh. (Photo: Samrat Mandal/UNDP)

Madvi Madka, from the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, has one thing in common with business tycoons across the globe - he is part of the construction sector that has been crippled by the global meltdown. But he is no real-estate shark. Madka is a farmer and a daily-wage earner. He feeds his family of five by selling forest and agricultural produce in his remote village of Chingawaram in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. But this income is enough for only four months of the year. For the rest of the year, Madka travels to the city to work as a casual construction worker to supplement his income. Over the past year, however, Madka could not find work in the cities nearby. He does not know what has led to this sudden turn of fortunes, but he is not alone.

In India, home to about 320 million people living on less than one dollar a day, the global economic crisis has affected not only the formal sector, but also the country's huge informal economy. Among the newly unemployed are many migrant workers, who earn their daily income through casual jobs. Their existence tends to be ignored by official statistics.

But Madka and his family have found a safety net in the form of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of the Government of India, popularly known as the job guarantee Act. Enacted on 7 September 2005, NREGA is different from previous employment programmes in that it legally binds the government to provide employment for up to 100 days a year to those who demand it. "The NREGA has helped in slowing down migration from rural to urban and in some cases is even leading to reverse migration," says Mr. Rajat Kumar, the officer in-charge of Dantewada.

From an awareness raising programme conducted in his village with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Madka learned about his right to work under the NREGA and found out how to join the job guarantee programme. "At the meeting I learned that through the NREGA I could get daily wages from the government to develop my own land," said Madka. Receiving Rs.7,300 (approx $155) against a plan he submitted, Madka constructed a pond on his plot of land. Today, the pond not only waters his field and cattle, it is also used for rearing fish, providing him with an extra income. It allows his family to grow and sell vegetables all year around.

UNDP India is a key partner of the Government of India on the job guarantee programme. It strengthened the government's capacity to implement the programme by setting up a Technical Secretariat with experts in monitoring, training and communications. It generated awareness about the Act among potential participants, informing them about their rights and the benefits of the programme. This has proved to be crucial for creating demand for work. It also helped ensure transparency in payment of wages and efficiency in administration by introducing innovative technologies like smart cards, biometric devices and ATMs and by digitizing information.

Madka hopes that other residents in his village who have returned empty-handed from the cities can learn from him and participate in the job guarantee programme in these difficult times.