The god of ecological things

It was the mid-1980s. Environmentalist Anil Agarwal was on a mission: track down the person who had conceptualized the employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra. His search—I tagged along—led him to a dusty, file-filled office in the secretariat. There we met V S Page. I remember a diminutive, soft-spoken man who explained to us why in 1972, when the state was hit with crippling drought and mass migration, it worked on a scheme under which professionals working in cities would pay for employment in villages. This employment was guaranteed by law, which meant it provided an entitlement and put a floor to poverty. Since work was available locally, people did not have to flee to cities.

Anil was excited—by the fact of employment during acute stress, but also saw potential for ecological regeneration. We had just visited Ralegan Siddi village where Anna Hazare was overseeing work to dig trenches along contours of hills to hold water and to recharge groundwater. On our visit, we saw the first bumper onion crop because of increased irrigation. Page agreed to the scheme’s ecological potential, but explained that since the scheme was designed for employment during acute distress, the district administration looked for the easiest way out, in most cases breaking stones, building roads or public work construction.

In the next few years, the idea to use this same labour for natural asset creation gained ground in Maharashtra, emphasis changed to soil and water conservation—building check dams, bunding fields, trenching hills and even planting trees. The Central government employment programmes—clones of the Maharashtra scheme—followed suit, mandating in some cases the minimum percentage to be spent on planting trees for ecological regeneration.

This was also the time when the country was learning how to plant trees that survive; or build the tank that would not get silted next season. Bureaucrat N C Saxena worked out how many trees would there be in each Indian village if all the trees planted survived—a veritable forest, which existed only on paper. Anil wrote on how employment programmes had perfected the creation of perpetual unproductive employment—dig a hole, plant a sapling, the sapling is eaten or dies; next season dig the same hole again and plant again. Follow this procedure each year.

This lesson led to new understanding—village communities had to take ownership over fragile natural assets. People had to be involved in decisions and, most importantly, benefit directly from regenerated fodder grass, trees and water structures. Fractured bureaucracies—forest departments, agriculture departments or irrigation departments —did not lead to holistic planning at the village level. It was a time when development experimentation blossomed – states such as Madhya Pradesh created a single agency to work at village watersheds. This was also the period when research revealed the enormous economic gains for villages that better utilised their land and water resources.

Why am I recounting all this? Simple: the National Rural Employment Guarantee (nreg) programme is built on the same premise. It even improves on past schemes by incorporating the need to invest in natural asset creation (soil and water conservation); by making village level planning mandatory; and by making the elected panchayat (not just fractured departments) responsible for public works. But two years after the scheme’s launch, I must ask: do these improvements incorporate past lessons?

Travelling in Rajasthan in peak summer, I found women working on the village 100-day scheme (as it is known locally) in droves. Under a blistering sun they were digging the defunct village pond. The local engineer explained the scheme, formulated by the panchayat, was to desilt the structure and then build its wall. I saw each woman was digging what looked like a square. Why? The supervisor explained this was the requirement, based on a ‘scientific’ estimation of how much each person could dig daily—how many cubic feet of earth could be moved. The square the women were digging was this task rate, used then to calculate the amount of work done and so the wages. The women I spoke to explained this only meant they never knew how much they would be paid at the end of the week or fortnight, for the task done would be individually calculated.

I realized that in Delhi’s obsession to deal with inefficiency and corruption, the nature of the work was almost forgotten. Nobody could explain if the squares dug each day would add to a tank that functioned. Nobody cared if the channels that brought the water to the tank were de-silted. Nobody even cared if the 100 days employment would lead to the work being completed.

In another village, located close to the Sunderban tiger reserve, I saw a rainwater channel built under nreg; it had changed the village economy to the extent that people do not depend on illegal fishing any more. The water structure provided them with irrigation for an extra crop. This was the real potential of the scheme. Excited, I asked if the panchayat had planned the water structure. No, came the answer. “If we work under a panchayat-led programme, we do not get paid because the panchayat has to clear its payment with the district officials, who in turn require detailed proof that the work has been done.” The procedures are complicated and, invariably, people are either not paid, or paid less. This development structure was implemented through the forest department, which has authority to plan and execute work.

The details, not the concept, of the nreg programme need to be fixed. Urgently. For the God of ecological regeneration, too, is in the details.

Sunita Narain