Making MNNREGS ( Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme) more entrepreneurial for reducing distress and generating jobs


Never before had so many additional workers sought job under NREGA as will happen this year.  Because of reverse migration, there could be at least 20 – 30 million additional workers needing gainful employment during this coming summer.  Many of these workers are highly qualified, have some unique skills and can add a lot of value to whatever they do.  It will be pity if we make them break stone and dig earth rather than leverage their skills, knowledge and ideas.  If everything goes well, we should hope that such a situation will never rise again as has arisen due to Covid-19. Vice President  Shri Venkaiah Naidu has given rightly a call  yesterday to take NREGS to small and marginal framers to strengthen 4 Is, irrigation, infrastructure, investment and insurance.
I wish to expand on the idea of recasting NREGS to make more entrepreneurial. Ultimately, it should become redundant since local micro enterprises must absorb the majority of the labour per Gandhian vision of decentralised self-reliant local development. Five foci of poposed model are:

  1. Art and culture
  2. Construction and installation
  3. Fabrication and training
  4. Natural resource management with specific reference to in-situ water conservation
  5. Entrepreneurial transformation by subsidizing labour cost of worker-led rural startups
  1. Art and culture

There are many workers who have outstanding artistic, cultural and literary skills.  There are painters, folkloric artists, performers of traditional forms of music, story and theatres, craftsmen/women, etc.  Similarly, there are many elderly people who are discouraged from doing manual work this year due to #Covid-19 vulnerability.  Many of them have outstanding storytelling and other such cultural strengths.  We should clarify once and for all that work in a knowledge society cannot just be menial but can also be mental.

Imagine if at least one or two walls of a million government schools, primary #health centers, panchayat office and other such public offices are painted by folk artists, how many cultural industry jobs will be created besides enriching the diversity of #cultural landscape? Would not the motivation of children increase when they would come back from school after Covid 19 lockdown and see colorful walls?  Will patients not feel relaxed when the ambience of primary health center becomes more soothing and colourful?  

Similarly, the performing artists young or old can record their performances and upload it on a national, cultural heritage portal.  Every download will lead to transfer some of the ad revenue to their personal account. No other country would have prevented the erosion of cultural heritage to such a large extent as would be possible through this effort.  Since performers will have to do rehearsal and improve their performance, they should be adequately compensated for the contribution of their cultural capital.  It is not just the time that they spent, but the memories they harness.  It is quite possible that many of the young learners would like to acquire these artistic and cultural skills and help in not just conserving but also augmenting cultural heritage.  Scholars may do research and identify various patterns in the cultural ecological and social capital of working class.  Both resident and immigrant workers should be encouraged to participate in this initiative of cultural mapping.  The digital archive will unleash a unique collaborative space around cultural diversity.

  • Construction and installation

Construction is the single largest sector employing the largest number of workers after agriculture.  It is unlikely that we will get so many construction workers, masons, rural architects and fitters in rural areas. We should facilitate the digging of underground water storage structures near the huts of workers, in schools, dispensaries, public offices, etc.  The roof top water harvesting can also be made compulsory for all public buildings.  It is well known that many of the toilets constructed in the country could not be kept clean for want of sufficient water.  By creating water storage structures, we would solve that problem in a systematic and durable manner.  It will also provide high quality drinking water which can help in diluting hard water wherever such conditions exist.   Similarly, using Bernoulli’s principle, one can create cold air window frames by embedding cut bottles so that when air expands, it becomes cooler and thus low cost cooling system can be developed for schools and dispensaries.  The drainage and irrigation channels often leak and are not maintained properly leading to  loss of water or contamination of underground water.  The skilled workers will maintain such structures and upload the photographs of every single work accomplished under this programme.  The scope of NREGA should be modified to enable construction of roof top water conservation structures and underground water tank in the premises of micro and small industries, even if they are located in semi urban or urban hinterland. The gap between  rural and semi urban areas is decreasing because of rapid urbanization and emergence of industrial clusters.  The need of water is no less in such areas as well. 

  • Fabrication and training

The industrial workers bring with them unique skill of not only traditional, mechanical and electrical operations but also doing job work, fabricating semi or automatic machinery.  Why shouldn’t employment guarantee programme include unconventional semi-industrial activities which will in long term generate enough jobs that one may not even need employment guarantee programme any more?  These workers should be provided tools, access to workshops in ITI and polytechnics and encouraged to train younger workers in fabricating solutions for local needs.  They should also be encouraged to make videos of the training process as a resource for young learners to hone their skills. The uniquely skilled workers should be challenged to work on meeting unmet rural needs for small agro processing and other value-adding food processing, construction, and other types of machinery.  This can increase productivity enormously.    Wherever field workers can be provided access to workshops and connection to local technical institutions, the employment guarantee programme would acquire a totally new dimension and impact.

  • Natural resource management with specific reference to in-situ water conservation

Conventionally, deepening of water tanks, digging of farm ponds even on private farms, making check dams, etc., have been given importance.  But there are regions such as Vidharba, Maharashtra which have far fewer ponds than in Saurashtra, Gujarat.  NREGA programmes should organize e-visits of mixed groups of workers and farmers to such places to understand the importance of water conservation structures.  Mapping biodiversity and documenting traditional knowledge, bio and other resources, particularly for women and elderly people should be included as a part of employment programme.   Workers have suffered a great deal in various shelters.  They need to be empowered so as to regain their trust and make them realise the important roles they have to play in nation building. 

  • Entrepreneurial transformation by subsidizing labour cost of worker-led rural startups

Many workers who will fabricate solutions, take up agro or food processing ventures or set up power looms or textile related ventures may need risk capital and funds for training workers as apprentices.  There will be fewer such workers who may not like to go back to urban areas even after opening up the economy and may like to stay back.  A massive rural start-up programme focused on skilled labourers is needed for generating tens of thousands of such enterprises.  Even if 70 – 80 per cent fail, the remaining would provide hope to the failed ones to try again.  Distributed purchasing power will have its own non-inflationary positive impact on economic growth if investments made are productive and are synergistic with each other.

The proposed framework is based on three assumptions: [1] Economically poor people are not poor in their minds;  [2] Indian aspiration of becoming a knowledge society and a global leader is not compatible with carrying on 70-100 year old employment guarantee programme model and structure and [3] The entrepreneurial needs of emerging India require new synergy among skills, social, ecological and cultural capital and support for generating durable micro-enterprises. It may eventually obviate the need for employment programme altogether. 

A successful strategy, I have always believed, self-destructs. 


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place