MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh’s Tribal Areas epw

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India’s scheduled tribes are among the most
deprived socio-economic groups and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural
Employment Guarantee scheme has great potential in tribal areas. While
the Andhra Pradesh government has made an effort to ensure
implementation of the scheme in the scheduled areas, the gap between
administrative orders and the grass-roots level is wide. This article
lists measures that could radically improve implementation of the scheme
in tribal areas.

Diego Maiorano (maioranodiego@gmail.com) is with the University of Liège, Belgium and Chakradhar Buddha (samalochana@gmail.com) is Convener, Samalochana and works on tribal issues.

We would like to thank P S Ajay Kumar for valuable inputs.

India’s scheduled tribes are among the most deprived socio-economic
groups and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme
has great potential in tribal areas. While the Andhra Pradesh
government has made an effort to ensure implementation of the scheme in
the scheduled areas, the gap between administrative orders and the
grass-roots level is wide. This article lists measures that could
radically improve implementation of the scheme in tribal areas.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)
is likely to change significantly in the coming months. The Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has
promised to make it more outcome-oriented, less prone to theft and to
improve implementation. Changes are likely to occur at the state level
too, especially where there were changes of government. Andhra Pradesh
(AP) is a case in point. On the one hand, the bifurcation of the state
will probably translate into quite radical administrative changes; on
the other hand, the new Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government has already
started talking about introducing potentially radical policy changes.

We point out a few measures that we believe could radically improve
the implementation of the scheme in tribal (scheduled) areas of AP (and
possibly in other states). It is well known that the scheduled tribes
(STs) are among the most deprived social groups in the country.
According to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ website, STs lag far behind
the rest of the population in terms of every possible human development
indicator. According to the 2001 Census, in unified AP 61% of STs are
below the poverty line. Tribals derive their sustenance from land and
forest and are mostly engaged in agricultural activities which are very
primitive in nature and offer very little income. It is therefore
crucial that, in reforming the MGNREGA, the special needs of tribal
areas are taken into account, since the STs are the section of the
population that most desperately need the safety net that the scheme is
supposed to provide. This is even more important since official data
shows that the generation of MGNREGA employment in tribal areas is lower
than in the plain areas. In 2013-14 the average personday in AP
(excluding Telangana but including tribal areas) was 54.49 days per
household. In tribal areas the corresponding figure was just 43.21 days
per household.

The starting point of any policy regarding tribal areas, emanating
from constitutional provisions and the Nehruvian Panchsheel principles,
is that these areas deserve special treatment because of their peculiar
ecological, cultural, demographic and socio-economic context. This
should of course apply to the implementation of the MGNREGA too.

The AP government seems to be aware that tribal areas require special
attention, and it has indeed tried to adopt special implementation
arrangements. On the one hand, it has devolved the responsibility of
implementation to the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA); on
the other hand, it has issued a number of circulars and government
orders meant to tackle specific implementation problems.

Different Reality

However, the reality on the ground does not match the
administration’s efforts. The devolvement of powers to the ITDA,
although established on paper, has just not happened on the ground. In
many cases, personnel of the rural development department (RDD) are
still in charge of the implementation of the MGNREGA and field staff
still report to them. There are obvious reasons why the RDD at the local
level does not want to let the MGNREGA go since it constitutes a
substantial chunk of the department’s spending. Less obvious reasons
include the power structure that surrounds the MGNREGA, an extremely
popular scheme. These power structures are formed by a network of local
politicians and administrators that have all the incentives to retain
whatever control they can exercise on the scheme (and on the procurement
of material). Effectively devolving the responsibility to implement the
scheme to the ITDA means disrupting these power structures, a process
that is of course resisted at various levels.

However, this is an extremely important step. First, the ITDA
operates from a level that is much closer to the grass roots than the
RDD, that operates to a significant extent from the district
headquarters. This does not only affect the administration’s
understanding of the ground reality of tribal areas, but it has
practical and logistical implications too. For example, the district
programme director (PD) is extremely unlikely to visit tribal areas that
could be several hours of travelling away (according to official data
out of 5,948 tribal villages 1,092 do not have road connectivity at
all). This of course affects the crucial monitoring function of the PD
that proved to be one of the key reasons for the good implementation of
the scheme in other parts of the state.

Also, no district in AP is exclusively tribal. This means that it is
objectively difficult for the already overloaded PDs to pay special
attention to the needs of tribal areas. Finally, there is plenty of
evidence that the ITDA is much more equipped to understand (not least
from a cultural point of view) the needs of the tribals. It could be
added that given that most of the staff of the ITDA belongs to the STs
themselves, open discrimination is less likely to occur. This
could incentivise MGNREGA beneficiaries to raise their voice and report
malpractices without fears of being humiliated.

A second very important issue that needs to be tackled urgently
concerns the staff that implements the scheme. In short, it is
unconceivable that the same amount of personnel that the scheme requires
in non-tribal areas is sufficient to reach the same targets in tribal
areas. To give just one example, consider the norms that regulate the
appointment of field assistants, who are the main implementers at the
gram panchayat (GP) level. According to these rules, if a given GP has
more than five habitations, two field assistants will be appointed. This
works reasonably well in non-tribal areas. T Arjapuram GP in
Ravikamatham mandal of Visakhapatnam district, for example, has eight
habitations. Accordingly, it has two field assistants who are able to
cover relatively easily all parts of the GP. But in tribal areas the
average number of habitations per GP is considerably higher, not to
mention the fact that they are scattered in much larger (and less
accessible) areas. Solabham GP in G Madigula mandal in the same
district, for example, has as many as 48 habitations and yet only two
field assistants! While Solabham could well be an extreme case (in other
tribal villages the number of staff has been increased), the geographic
and demographic configuration of tribal areas requires a greater effort
in terms of appointing field staff.

This is an instance of a larger problem that concerns administrative
spending in tribal areas. According to the MGNREGA Act, up to 6% of the
total spending should be used for administrative requirements. An
implication of the constitutional safeguards for tribal areas and of the
Nehruvian Panchsheel principles is that the administration, to put it
bluntly, should spend more in tribal areas to achieve the same target
that can be reached in non-tribal areas. Official data shows that the
opposite is true. In 2013-14, the administrative expense in AP was
10.63% of the total MGNREGA spending, whereas in tribal areas the
corresponding figure is as low as 1.88%.

Such a low spending makes it just impossible for field staff to
implement the scheme properly. Think of a technical assistant who has to
travel long distances to take care of a number of gram panchayats (and
hence an exorbitant number of habitations) with a salary and a travel
allowance that is only slightly higher than that of his/her colleagues
in the plain areas where the distance to be covered is just a fraction.
One of them told us that he was somewhat “forced” to steal something
from the scheme just to be able to pay for the petrol for his motorbike.
The government has issued orders for hiring more staff. However, though
the order was issued in May 2013, the recruitment of the additional
staff proceeds at an excruciatingly low pace.

Social Audits

A related problem concerns the social audits. AP can be proud of its
highly institutionalised social audit system, which has no peer among
all other Indian states. However, when it comes to tribal areas, there
is the need to adopt special procedures for conducting the audits. This
has again much to do with the ecological configuration of tribal areas.
If it takes four hours for a social audit team to reach a given GP (and
hence four hours to go back), this means that very little time (if at
all) is left for the auditing procedures. (Reaching most gram panchayats
in tribal areas from the mandal headquarters takes far more than four
hours). According to civil society groups working at the grass-roots
level, at least in certain cases the social audits are conducted from
the mandal headquarters, without any contact with the beneficiaries,
thus losing the social component of the audit. It is also worrying that
social auditors are (relatively often) denied official documentation
(this applies to non-tribal areas too).

The good news is that the society that implements social audits in AP
appears to be aware of the problem. A new social audit process
(specifically designed for tribal areas) should be rolled out starting
from September. This could be the occasion also to strengthen the
partnership with local-level civil society organisations, who have a
better understanding of the area and that could make the work of the
auditors easier.

Finally, the administration should consider that small administrative
changes could make a great difference in tribal areas. For example,
most of the tribal population of AP lives on the Eastern Ghats where the
soil is particularly hard. This means that, in order to complete a
certain MGNREGA task, more work is required than in areas with softer
soil. This has important consequences on the wages the beneficiaries
get. The MGNREGA system takes into consideration this aspect and allows
administrators to classify the soil as normal, hard or rocky. However,
local implementers virtually never choose the “rocky” option. This is
probably due to the fact that on the one hand, classifying the work as
“rocky” requires an authorisation from higher levels; on the other hand,
doing so will increase the probability of being subject to checks by
the state government. In other words, it is a risky activity for a small
reward. Simply allowing administrators in tribal areas to classify the
soil as rocky – which much of the soil in the Eastern Ghats is – without
the need for a specific authorisation would increase the wages of the
beneficiaries to the levels comparable to that of the other wage seekers
in the state.

Conclusions

To sum up, STs are by far the most disadvantaged groups in India’s
society and in most cases they live in very remote areas where very
little economic activity takes place. The MGNREGA in tribal areas
constitutes an essential safety net against starvation and destitution,
particularly during the lean agricultural season. It is crucial that the
peculiar ecological, social, cultural and economic conditions of tribal
areas are taken into account. The state administration did make a
sincere attempt to do so; but a greater effort is needed in order to
fill the gap between government orders and ground reality.

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