Development Through MGNREGA: Making It Happen On The Ground

(A case from the Tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh)

The MGNREGA Approach

Assured 100 days of employment means much more than just wages for 100 days under the landmark MGNREGA1 act passed in 2005. If planned and implemented suitably, it has the power to generate multiple benefits especially in the rainfed tribal areas of the country. Some of the logical outputs can be reduction in distress migration, improvement in the quality of land, increase in vegetative cover, and conservation and harvesting of rain water. If our thinking goes beyond these outputs there are actually two more powerful outcomes possible - conversion of part-time small and marginal farmers into fulltime self sustained farmers, and ensuring national food security in the long term. Above mentioned argument is vital considering the fact that close to 70% of the tribal families in the country are having land but are not full time self sustained farmers due to very low output from their farms.


Considering MGNREGA as a powerful medium for improving livelihoods of rainfed tribal farmers, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India) decided to work with the local government in Madhya Pradesh under the Act. AKRSP (India) entered into an agreement with the district administration in the year 2007 for working in 12 villages of Khaknar block in Burhanpur district of Madhya Pradesh. Agreement envisaged livelihood improvement of tribal dominated villages through watershed2 development activities funded under MGNREGA. This project is commonly termed as “NREGA-Watershed Project”. Watershed development is the most suitable approach for natural resources management (NRM) in arid/semi-arid landscapes. We believed that these activities could greatly improve the food security status of the area as there are substantial evidences of improved agricultural productivity through watershed activities.

Processes Followed for Planning

Village volunteers demonstrating soil conservation work in Teliyathad village. Photo credit: AKRSP(I), Dedtalai (MP).

AKRSP (India) being a pioneer in the area of participatory planning processes especially in the field of natural resources management started preparing detailed project reports immediately after the agreement was signed with the government. The young team3 for the project was based at Dedtalai village of the district which is approximately 60 km away from the district headquarters. The team consisted of 7 young professionals from various educational backgrounds like engineering, agriculture and social mobilisation. For the next six months, the team worked very hard at two levels. First, getting secondary data from government departments and second mobilising rural households for participatory planning. It was almost next to impossible to get various information like village maps, land records etc from government department. One of the team members, Ramkrishna Mahajan with a long experience in dealing with lower level bureaucracy, was instrumental in getting things done from government babus4. The process of participatory planning of natural resources management within villages went rather smoothly. The team used various means for the purpose. Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs), transaction walks, farmer-wise planning, problems and need analysis, and technical surveys of the land were some of the tools used by the team to arrive at a comprehensive plan for village development. Gathered information and plans were converted into detailed project reports (DPRs) for each of the 12 villages of the demarcated watershed area.

Shattered Dreams

Government guidelines required DPRs to be approved at three levels of Panchayati Raj5. Approval of plans at village level and Block level was smooth, as expected. In some of the villages, large number of people gathered to see the plans and their response to the plans was highly motivating for the team. Early 2008, Plans were submitted to district level after getting approvals from first two levels. The team was so excited that in order to increase the overall impact of MGNREGA work it submitted another proposal to NABARD6. This proposal included those activities which were not possible under MGNREGA; agriculture extension and animal husbandry which are automatic extension to NRM works were major activities under this plan.

Plans did not move from the district level for the next couple of months which raised concerns among the team as there were full preparations at ground level to start the project, more importantly there were loads of expectations from the local community. Our team kept on following up with the district administration but there were no results. This process kept on repeating itself for the following six months which forced us to raise concerns at the State Capital level, which tried its best to generate slight pressure on district administration to move the plans. At this point of time, district administration intentionally tried to find faults in the plans and suddenly issued a notice to the organisation that the plans of a couple of villages are technically not suitable as these villages had already been covered under similar projects in the past. Government had constructed a big pond in the village Sajani, which they considered equivalent to a watershed project, while in reality watershed activities are crucial to long and sustained life of bigger water bodies. The team had no hopes of getting the approval from the district but intermittently they kept following up with the district administration.

The whole plan died down within one year and the team could not start any activity under the project. In between, NABARD sanctioned the proposed convergence plan and released the money for agriculture and animal husbandry work. We got into a trouble because these activities were planned along with NRM work but there was no money to start that work.

Rejuvenated Hopes

During the end of the year 2009 and early 2010 government of Madhya Pradesh came out with the improved and better variant of the same NREGA-Watershed project which they termed “village level micro-plans”. Government involved all the good NGOs within the State for planning and implementation of the project. We sensed another opportunity for revival of old plans of Burhanpur district under this new variant of the scheme. Our team had many doubts about the success of this new variant, as even after improved provisions, the processes for approval of plans and releasing of money were exactly same as the previous project. Suddenly there were many changes in the district administration and new bureaucrats took over the charge. Hoping for the best, we once again entered into an agreement with the district administration, this time for 16 villages including 10 villages from the old project. Learning from past experiences, the team could sense that it is extremely important to sensitise the district administration if it wants favourable results this time. We started efforts to bring responsible people from the district administration to villages where the team was working and show them the results of some of the works done by the team through funding from other sources. To the surprise of our team the collector of the district once attended (without invitation) one of the functions organised by members of SHGs7 promoted by us and got impressed with the work done by SHG members and also the large gathering present there. Impressed with the work, she sent a team of government officials to our field area to look at other activities done by us. This team got impressed with the work and the wings of hope flurried once again. With little trouble, the DPRs got passed this time and the first instalment of project amount got released in the mid of year 2011.

Starting the Implementation

Grasses came out in abundance of treated wasteland in Khermal village. Photo credit: Naveen Patidar.

As a part of its core belief, we always promote local village volunteers for implementation of watershed activities in the villages. It identified and sent a team of 13 village volunteers to Samaj Pragati Sahyog (SPS)8 for in-depth training on the concepts and implementation of watershed activities in semi-arid regions. Implementation of planned activities started in May-June 2011. As a part of watershed principles, work in ridge region has commenced which is expected to speed-up in coming months. Approximately 40 hectares of wasteland in the villages has been regenerated through various activities in last four months. More than 50,000 plants have been planted at common land whereas another 30,000 plants have been planted by farmers on their individual land during the monsoon9. In order to institutionalise the efforts, various village level institutions are promoted by the team and adequate capacity building efforts are made towards strengthening them. Sarpanch10 of all the villages were taken on exposure visits to model villages of other states to build a long term vision for the region. Exposures, trainings, awareness events and video shows on various aspects of MGNREGA and village development are regular events organised by the team.

Our recent analysis of three villages where wasteland development work is done revealed that there is production of more than 400 bullock carts of grass from these treated land; an early signal of what we want to achieve from the programme. Convergence plan through NABARD funding is underway in full swing. Dairy programme through NABARD has started yielding approximately 200 litres of milk per day from almost none. Appx Hundred horticulture and vegetable orchards have been planted while many more are in the pipeline. One of the most important visible outcomes is the increased capability of village institutions in couple of villages. Villages like Ammula Khurd have developed the capacity of building the capacities of others. Close to 1000 people from various villages, NGOs, government departments and academic institutions have already visited these villages to learn the nuances of actual execution of developmental activities at grass root level.

The World of Papers and Files

The young team, habituated to working under a system of autonomy and relatively paperless system, found itself in a completely different world of papers and files. Each of the smaller activities requires a sanction from district administration which not only consumes valuable time and energy but also a lot of papers. Many times, we jokingly say that the paper work requirement under the project might consume more number of trees than what actually we plant in the villages under the project! A country pioneering in information technology becoming more and more dependent on paper and file system is a real irony of our times.

Questions from the Community

Over the period of time there is a set trend in the questions asked by the community to us. Why we get labour payments which are so much delayed? Why there is system of payments through the banks when bankers are not interested in making MGNREGA payments to us like their regular customers? Why there is so much time gap in the planning phase and its actual implementation phase for individual activities? Whether the planned activities will ever materialize fully? Why the processes are so complex when the same work can be done in a much simpler way by the community itself? Why the technical sanctions are provided by people who never visited our villages?

A low cost water harvesting structure known as bori-bandh in Dasghat village. Photo credit: Naveen Patidar.

We exactly don’t know why the system is so complex for getting things done at the village level but what we are confident is “much simpler decentralised systems can yield better and faster results”.

Another set of people, where the focus has still not shifted, are the large and established farmers. Over the past one year I have listened one overwhelming argument by them, time and again. The argument is “Government is killing agriculture through creating the habit of easy cash to labour”. They are not entirely wrong because many of the Panchayats are distributing easy money to labourers without getting much work done in the villages. There is a two sided danger in MGNREGA if not planned and implemented properly. At the one side there will be no improvement in the livelihood of poor areas if quality assets are not created under the scheme while at the same time bigger farmers will not get labour for existing agricultural requirement. Even I also hear from farmers that they are now not interested in producing food crops because that gives very low value and require more labour. If this happens then there is a total reversal of our hypothesis of getting national food security through MGNREGA.

Looking Ahead

Looking at our motivated young team, excited farmers and a relatively better district administration (at least at higher levels), the chances of getting success this time is very bright. We are also looking at building alternate processes which would be much simpler to existing ones. Innovations through ICT11 are under consideration. The team understands the need of keeping all the stakeholders motivated throughout the project period and is working hard on that front. Let us hope that we would be able to convert at least 500 farmers from marginal to full-time self-sustained farmers with improved status of food security over next three to four years.

Naveen Kumar Patidar is working as Manager (Programmes) with Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India) at its Madhya Pradesh programme area. He is a management graduate from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA). He can be reached at