The NREGA has provided employment but also pushed farm labour shortage and rising farming costs, says BHAVDEEP KANG
IN A letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assessing the performance of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia said that the UPA had outdone the NDA in job creation by a mile. That the BJPruled states did a far better job in implementing the scheme was secondary (in his assessment). But what Yojana Bhawan appears to have ignored is the Act's contribution to an increasingly tight agricultural labour market.
The constructive impact of NREGA has been undeniable: a rise in rural daily wage rates, reduced migration and positive social effects. But it has also contributed to rising farm input costs, withdrawal of labour from the farm sector and therefore impacted agricultural operations and food prices.
Andhra Pradesh is the one Congress-ruled state adjudged to have done well on the NREGA front. Precisely the reason why there is an acute shortage of labour, the farmers' unions have said. They have warned of a 15 to 20 percent drop in productivity during kharif 2008 if the labour scarcity issue is not addressed. Farmers may be forced to shift to non-labour intensive horticultural crops such as orchards, while some may leave their land fallow.
Localised labour shortages have severely hampered farmers in other southern states as well. A study by Kerala University in Palakkad district has attributed the acute shortage of farm labour in the district to NREGA. Rubber plantations in the state are hard-hit with traditional workers from Tamil Nadu reluctant to work even at enhanced wages. Rice farmers in the state also attribute their labour woes to NREGA.
In Rajasthan, where the state government received full marks for its commitment to the employment guarantee scheme, labour shortage and the hike in daily wage rates is marked. Farmers say the labour market was tight even before the launch of NREGA, but the scheme has exacerbated the shortage. The prosperous Patel farmers of Banswara, accustomed to readily available cheap tribal labour, said they have had to double wages. The more fair-minded among them admit this may not entirely be a bad thing. Wages for agricultural labour have gone up and migration to greener pastures has been curbed somewhat, although landless labourers and marginal farmers still prefer to undertake manual work outside their own district for social reasons. Thakur farmers from Jaipur district said it was a novel experience to coax, rather than command, labourers to work in their fields. "They are full of nakhras. They all want to sit on tractors!" said farmer Ram Karan. In that sense, NREGA has been socially empowering for lower castes.
Western Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal are no different in terms of labour shortage. Eastern UP and Bihar, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, hitherto inexhaustible labour pools for prosperous farmers in the north, appear to be drying up. NREGA alone may not be responsible: the demand for labour is being felt across sectors, not just agriculture. The construction industry is facing a shortage of both skilled and unskilled labour.
The Planning Commission rates the performance of Bihar in implementing NREGA as poor, but farmers in Punjab would certainly greet this with skepticism. Labour is always in short supply during peak agricultural activity months, but 2008 has been particularly bad. Wheat harvesting during rabi 2007-08 and rice sowing for kharif 2008 were delayed this year, as adequate labour from Bihar and Eastern UP did not arrive despite a heavy premium in wages being offered. In both Punjab and Haryana, many farmers torched agricultural residues this year, to minimise labour-intensive field preparation prior to the kharif sowing. So serious is the shortage, that subsidising traveling expenses for inward migrant labour is being mooted!
The labour crunch is likely to fuel demand for expensive mechanical sowing devices, known as transplanters, among the already capital-intensive farmers of Punjab and Haryana. But their labour-saving advantage has to be weighed against the serious problem of "soil compaction" caused by heavy agricultural machinery. Over-use of tractors, harvesters and other machines in paddy fields has reduced soil fertility, enhanced erosion and reduced water and nutrient use-efficiency.
FARMERS SAY the labour shortage can also be attributed to social reasons. Youth are reluctant to undertake manual farm activities and physical labour is a deterrent. So, farmers can no longer rely on family labour. One farmer linked the increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases in rural India to the decline of hands-on farming, with no change in dietary intake.
This does not mean that youth are reluctant to take advantage of NREGA. In Mizoram, a farmer described how a group of enterprising youth pooled money to hire an earthmover, which accomplished in a couple of hours earthwork that would have taken a week to do manually. They walked away with a week's worth of NREGA wages.
Some farmers' groups have suggested that the 100-day employment guarantee be confined strictly to months when there is no harvesting or sowing activity. During peak field activity — say, 50 to 60 days of the year in Punjab, employment is, in any case, available.
High labour costs have a double impact: making agriculture unviable and driving up the cost of food.
Increased mechanisation is an option, but has to be weighed against the capital and long-term environmental costs (apart from the problem of soil compaction). For instance, many of the intercultural operations suggested under the Integrated Pest Management scheme are manual. If labour is not available, farmers may have to opt for increased use of pesticides and herbicides. This is ecologically undesirable, besides driving up input costs.
The impact of NREGA needs to be reassessed and it cannot be weighed in just political terms. The long-term consequences for the agricultural sector must also be taken into consideration. •