February 2016 marks a decade since India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA) came into force. NREGA is both revolutionary and modest; it promises every rural household one hundred days of employment annually on public-works projects, but the labour is taxing and pays minimum wage, at best.

Many charges have been levelled against NREGA: that it is not the most efficient way to deliver anti-poverty assistance; that it produces substandard public works; and that officials steal programme funds. There is some truth – in some places, and at some times — to all of these complaints.

But the accusations are often wildly overstated, which is no surprise given the partisan and ideological debates that have taken place since the idea of a right-to-work initiative first appeared on the policy agenda of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Political capacity

It has provided crucial income-support to some of India’s poorest and most marginalised people – precisely the kinds of people that social protection programmes find difficult to reach.

What NREGA’s most vociferous critics neglect most of all are its political impacts, notably, the varied mechanisms through which the programme’s implementation process can enhance the “political capacity” of poor people.

In our forthcoming book, Politics and the Right to Work: India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Hurst/Oxford), my co-author James Manor and I define political capacity as an amalgam of political awareness, connections, confidence, and skills.

NREGA’s participation and accountability provisions provide ordinary people a voice in identifying local works projects and opportunities to engage collectively in citizen-auditing of these projects once completed (including through the systematic verification of wage-payments).

NREGA’s architects understood that social audits and other accountability mechanisms would work imperfectly. Few Indians were better aware than the activists (from within and outside the state) who designed NREGA, of the array of deceptions, delays, and evasions that powerful actors use to subvert such schemes.

They, nevertheless, calculated that the key role of elected local councils (panchayats) in implementing NREGA would make attempts by officials to steal from the programme far more visible.

NREGA has contributed greatly to the reinvigoration of panchayats at the village and district levels. At least half of NREGA funds must be spent on projects designed and implemented through panchayats.

The NREGA-prompted devolution of resources made elected village councils, despite their shortcomings, a site where marginalised people’s demands for accountability were legitimated.

This was a process aided in some States (for example, Rajasthan) by particularly well-positioned civil society networks, and in others (Tamil Nadu) by capable State bureaucracies.

Incremental change

NREGA’s architects did not expect an immediate end to the longstanding practice in India’s employment programmes of interference by political patrons in the distribution of work opportunities and the siphoning of workers’ wages by local officials.

But there was a strong belief among NREGA’s early advocates that it represented an important step in India’s long journey toward a post-clientelist future.

Reforms to the programme, generated by civil society organisations working both in partnership with and in opposition to the state, led to a requirement that wages be paid into workers’ personal bank accounts.

This, in turn, fuelled a massive increase in the number of rural people incorporated into the formal financial sector. The kind of brazen theft of workers’ wages that had characterised precursor employment schemes became rarer.

NREGA has also had a wide range of non-material impacts with significant social and political dimensions. Programme participants routinely travel to worksites located outside their often caste — or community-segregated neighbourhoods, often labouring alongside people from different communities — and (where wages are withheld) engaging in collective protest action with them.

For many women who worked on NREGA projects, emerging from the domestic into the public sphere was a significant political step in its own right. The respectability of “government” jobs, however temporary, was an important enabling factor.

In some years, women have accounted for almost half of all NREGA person-days worked. Their bargaining leverage within households increased, and at least one study found that women recipients of NREGA wages were subjected to lower levels of domestic violence. NREGA’s impressive political durability — it survived the arrival of a new ruling party, the BJP, in 2014 — is largely the result of the process of continuous mobilisation that NREGA’s structure encourages.

Attempts by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to seriously scale back NREGA have generated major political backlash, including from local groups whose protests against the non-availability of NREGA jobs, or the underpayment of wages, are a regular feature of political life in many rural areas.

Centre recants

Government proposals to restrict NREGA’s coverage to India’s most economically depressed regions, for instance, were foiled by a combination of grassroots protest and fierce resistance by opposition parties.

Another reason NREGA is unlikely to be abolished anytime soon is that some BJP chief ministers like it. Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister grasped early on that implementing NREGA reasonably well could yield at least two political payoffs: electoral support from communities and localities that benefit, and backing from the district and sub-district elites (political and bureaucratic) who are given considerable latitude in how they implement NREGA.

Perhaps the most important reason NREGA’s survival prospects are as good as they are, given Prime Minister’s Modi’s stated antipathy for the programme and the aversion of his key economic advisors, is that the ruling party’s political capital has been severely depleted by its inept handling of other high-profile policy reforms, particularly the effort to dilute legal protections for people whose land the state targets for compulsory acquisition.

The party’s leadership wants to avoid an anti-farmer/anti- poor image at all costs. Whether NREGA, under the current dispensation of malign neglect, can continue to augment the political capacity of poor people is another matter.

The writer is a Professor of Political Science, Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY). This article by special arrangements with the Center for Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania