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By Dr Sonal Mobar Roy

Catering to the needs of millions of people in the country, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGS) is one of India’s flagship social protection programmes. It is the largest labour guarantee scheme in the world, offering 100 days of paid labour to every rural household. The origin of the scheme comes from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 which came into effect in 2006. It is the first programme that is backed by a statute. Not only does it serve as a social security net for the marginalised and vulnerable population of the country, but it also provides them guaranteed employment and income resilience.

The majority of the job-seekers under MGNREGS are from the most climate-vulnerable areas. The aim is to build household resilience to climate change so as to enable them to deal with risks and challenges. As per IPCC 2014, the most adversely affected by climate change are the rural poor in developing countries. In the past few years, the focus has revolved around the stakes in rural development and the impact of lurking climate change. Numerous policy changes and focused interventions on targeted groups have been designed to reduce the loss of lives, livestock and livelihoods due to climate change.

A Lifeline

Climate change can be triggered by any event such as increase in sea levels, rise in temperatures and sporadic changes in weather or glacial meltdown. In the event of such occurrences, the people living on the margins are the worst hit. It is evident that in many States the scheme has been able to deliver increased investment in water conservation infrastructure and availability of water for irrigation, leading to increased production in agriculture and ultimately livelihoods. Though MGNREGS guarantees 100 days of employment in rural areas to every household where adult members volunteer to do unskilled labour, in drought-prone areas, the households can demand 150 days of work.

There are five capital assets that lead to building sustainable livelihoods: natural, physical, human, social and financial. Under MGNREGS, there are 262 permissible works of which 182 are associated with natural resource management and 80 with non-natural resource management. For FY22, the allocation stood at Rs 1,31,519.08 crore.

The Act stands out as it brings together right-based entitlements and demand-driven employment. As of 2022, the number of job cards issued stood at 16.17 crore which proves that a large number of people sought employment under the scheme. During the pandemic, the scheme proved to be a lifeline for the rural poor. It facilitates the creation of rural infrastructure and agricultural activities, thus ensuring long-term livelihood support for the masses. However, climate change has threatened the reversal of these developmental interventions.

Right Mapping

It is high time that mapping of social protection instruments with climate risk management instruments was done to address the issue of poverty in the context of climate change. Sensitivity to climate change hazards needs to be inculcated. By sensitivity, one means the degree to which a community, eco-system or economy is affected by climate hazards. Various enabling or disabling factors may include household-level income, assets, governance and socio-economic factors such as caste, religion, gender, ethnicity and nativity.

Diverse local needs have to be taken into cognisance. This also pertains to, and at the same time, strengthens the ‘decentralisation’ or ‘bottom-up approach’ that incorporates the key elements of the Act. The basic architecture of the Act enables panchayats or village councils to be the central authority to implement and monitor its activities. Community ownership is further built by engaging the local people in the listing of prioritisation of works along with the focus on climate change adaptation that may eventually bring in effective and responsive climate support.

Field experience has shown that at the gram panchayat level, the functionaries are now aware of the climate change threats and are able to come up with local level suggestions and ideas for mitigating the same. They are able to prioritise the works in the Gram Panchayat Development Plan and address the concerns. They give priority to water harvesting, drought-proofing and flood protection activities. Eco-restoration has also been evidenced in many hinterlands. Locally available cost-effective means to deal with climate risks are being taken note of. Micro-irrigation projects, construction of check-dams, desilting of ponds, restoration of canals, etc, are some of the works that not only mitigate the risks but also provide immense opportunities for drawing wages under the scheme.

Key Step

MGNREGA has already made a major contribution to resilience but requires improvements in governance and state capacity to maximise its contribution. Convergence is key. Converging MNREGA with other interventions that support climate risk management can help programme implementers spread the financial and delivery costs of resilience activities. Moreover, focused studies are required to address climate change risks and their impacts.

A key message that needs to be propagated under IEC (information, education & communication) in the programme is that the target groups should know that MGNREGA works to address the climate change vulnerability and protects the farmers from such risks apart from conserving natural resources. Though the programme is not designed exclusively for dealing with climate change, the underpinnings cater to the same on a larger scale.

Nevertheless, there remains a critical prerequisite for actionable policy strategies that can safeguard support for vulnerable and marginalised groups at the macro level not only by ‘mainstreaming’ new initiatives of climate support into existing development discourse but also in the designing of approaches to confront challenges and threats.

Climate resilience can be achieved by integrating climatic information, adopting low-carbon intensive technologies and building infrastructure that is resilient in nature. In the times to come, all stakeholders, be it government or non-government, need to come together to usher in changes at the grassroots level.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Centre for Wage Employment and Livelihoods, NIRDPR, Hyderabad)

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Author: Howard Caldwell