A quiver-full of humanitarian legislation has been brought on the statute book by the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh power structure since 2001. Of these, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 (MNREGA) should salve the conscience of the haves-most. However, one’s first instinct is to be critical of an Act that guarantees 100-days’ employment to all unskilled rural workers above the age of 18 years. A corrosive and debilitating cynicism pervades the political hawa. It makes one perceive that all government expenditure goes down a funnel that empties mountains of money into the well-hidden grottos in which political and public functionaries (from the treasurers of the ruling parties to the pradhan of a village panchayat or lowly government official) stack defalcated funds. The cupidity of the power structure makes one look at the Rs.33,000-Rs.40,000 crore outlay for the employment guarantee through the tainted glasses of this preconceived notion as well.

But if the MNREGA carries the seeds of its own destruction within it, it is not because of the shared malaise of corruption. That is something the aam admi is now inured to. There is a hidden factor that is even more insidious: the mathematics on which its business model is based is illogical. Every legislation has an inbuilt rationale. When this is violated, the sums go wrong and the legislation fizzles out or has to be recast. So it is with this Act. Its problem lies in the energy equations that are the foundation on which its edifice stands.

Consequently, the numbers are eroding the programme.

The driving force of manual labour is human energy and all energy, whether human, animal, fossil fuel, non-conventional or hydro, is measured in kilocalories, watts, or joules. These units are freely convertible into any one measure. And it will be seen that when the cost of energy from each one of these sources is compared, there is a clash that would not end in favour of manual labour, especially now that commodity prices, including that of petroleum, are falling. The input for human labour is food, for machines either diesel or electricity. The efficiency of both is vastly different, as we see from comparative figures.

The MNREGA legislation was passed eight years ago. Because of the time lapse, most people would have difficulty in recalling the reason for its enactment. To refresh memories, I reproduce the preamble. It states that this is:

An Act to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the households in rural areas of the country by providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work and for matters connected therewith of incidental thereto.

An adult is anyone over 18 years of age. Since all reviews and interpretations are necessarily argumentative (as, according to Amartya Sen, are Indians) it would be well to settle that the term “enhanced livelihood security” means that rural labourers should be better fed, clothed and sheltered as a result of seeking employment under the MNREGA.

Their circumstances have through history been dire and cruel. Although the memory of famine in India (as in China) has long been dimmed in the Indian and Asian mind, both in Bengal and in Andhra Pradesh (where I am engaged in a scheme to help improve earnings), the last holocaust of hunger swept the countryside in 1945. Churchill had decreed that the war effort in 1944-45 in the Japanese theatre (Kohima has been placed first on the list of all difficult battles ever fought by Britain) had first call on food even if it meant that millions suffered from its shortage.

Consequently, many died; others suffered emaciation and medical horror and lived shorter lives as skeletons.

Starvation has visited the sub-continent recurrently. There was a previous episode of such unimaginable horror in the 1870s that even Florence Nightingale commented on it to rouse the conscience of the authorities. There is a vivid account of the scourge in a depressing book called Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis. It recounts these famines south of the Vindhyas, occasioned by successive droughts and the concern of the viceroy, Lord Lytton, and his council that death ought not to be prevented as it was in accordance with the ideological percepts of laissez-faire and Social Darwinism. These doctrines imprisoned the minds of the colonial government. The situation described could well be an account of conditions in drought in Maharashtra and other pockets of the country today. But, at least overtly, the mindset that deals with them is different. One difference is the MNREGA.

Davis writes that while the drought ravaged the Deccan:

“The central government under the leadership of Queen Victoria's favourite poet, Lord Lytton, vehemently opposed efforts by Buckingham and some of his district officers to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the autumn of 1876, while the vital kharif crop was withering in the fields of southern India, Lytton had been absorbed in organizing the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India (Kaiser-i-Hind). As the Times’ special correspondent described it, ‘The Viceroy seemed to have made the tales of Arabian fiction true... nothing was too rich, nothing too costly... Its climacteric ceremonial included a week-long feast for 68,000 officials, satraps and maharajas: the most colossal and expensive meal in world history. An English journalist later estimated that 100,000 of the Queen-Empress's subjects starved to death in Madras and Mysore in the course of Lytton's spectacular durbar. Indians in future generations justifiably would remember him as their Nero...’ ”

The term ‘enhanced livelihood’ in the preamble of the Act means that rural labourers should be better fed, clothed and sheltered as a result of seeking employment under the MREGA. Their circumstances have through history been dire and cruel.

Yet he admonished those who felt that public funds ought to be used to alleviate the suffering from hunger. He allowed no provision for it in his budget.(This is rather like the PM calling for a tightening of expenditure while ordering 12 Westland helicopters, at Rs.400 crore each, for the use of VVIPs to get an aerial view of affairs.)

“While British procrastination was sacrificing charity to their savage god, the Invisible Hand [that gripped Victorian England in the vice of Smith-Bentham-Malthus thought] held the administration in its thrall as thousands of these destitute villagers were voting with their feet and fleeing to Hyderabad, where the Nizam was providing assistance [and no doubt being considered an unenlightened oriental oaf or despot for doing so]. A large part of Sholapur was depopulated before British officials managed to organise relief works. Then, as a horrified British journalist discovered, they turned away anyone who was too starved to undertake hard coolie labour. But even ‘the labour test imposed upon the able-bodied,’ the Times correspondent noted, ‘is found to be too heavy for their famished frames; the wages paid are inadequately low; in many districts all who are willing to work do not find employment...’ ”

The point here is not just the havoc that the accepted economic thought of a particular era can visit, but also that the British, being a rational people concerned with measurement of input and output ratios and their impact on public expenditure, did not get it entirely wrong. The laws of science are immutable and even today, while it may be politically incorrect to publicly discuss the link between human energy and finance, the repercussions cannot be wished away.

The question is whether the cost should be borne in the present manner or whether there is a better way of organising society.

Unlike in British days, the MNREGA has no restrictions on those seeking work. Whoever volunteers is subject to two stipulations about the calculation of wages. The first is that they would be based on the minimum daily wage for agricultural labour in each state; this was fixed at Rs.60 in 2005, is revised every two years, and is Rs.137 by 2013 in Andhra Pradesh. It is higher in some other states, for example, Rs.149 in Rajasthan and Rs.200 in Kerala.

The second is that ‘(a) when wages are directly linked with the quantity of work, the wages shall be paid according to the schedule of rates (SOR) fixed by the State Government for different types of work every year, in consultation with the State Council; and (b) the schedule of rates of wages for unskilled labourers shall be so fixed that a person working for seven hours would normally earn a wage equal to the wage rate.’

For Thatcherites, the fixing of a minimum wage may be a direct interference with the market mechanism, but considering the human condition of famished frames and the aim of enhancing their livelihood security, there seems to be little justification for summarily rejecting, on principle, a measure that ensures betterment.

But does it? Herein lies the rub.

A small illustration would show what an SOR means, say, for a task (there is one for each of many tasks) described as “Earthwork; excavation and depositing on bank with initial lead of 10 metres (m.) and initial lift of 2.0 m. in loamy soils like black cotton soils, red earth and chowdu soils.” For “counter bunding/earthen bunding” it is Rs.59.92 per cubic metre (cu. m.). Therefore a person must dig and move 2.30 cu. m. in seven hours to earn the minimum wage of Rs.137. This comes to Rs.59 per cu. m.

However, the reality is that labourers work in groups and not individually. This task, for example, consists of two operations: a man digging and, say, one or two women moving the soil. Here complications arise. If each has to earn a wage of Rs. 137 or a total of Rs. 411 per day, the amount of earth to be dug and deposited would be 6.9 cu. m., and not the lower amount implied in the SOR, if each individual is to qualify for the fixed wage. Since this is not achievable, in fact the team end up sharing Rs.137, with women often getting the short end of the stick.

Many readers of Fountain Ink and city-dwellers would have long lost contact with the countryside and it would be hard for them to imagine what this entails. But imagine a stretch of rough earth measuring 3.4 m. long, 2 m. wide and 1 m. deep and the physical toil involved in the leanest period for employment, between the rabi and kharif crops, i.e. between January and June, in which for the most part the temperature during working hours, normally from about 6 a.m. to 1 p.m., goes higher than 37 degrees C. Since payment is pro-rata, those who are not able to meet this standard get paid proportionately less than the fixed wage.

That is just a picture of one aspect of the worksite but also imagine that the labourers that come to work spread from an age group of 18-30 years to over 60 years. In Manipur in the last financial year, out of a total number of 5.15 lakh persons employed under the Act, 75,000 (15 per cent) were in the youngest age group; 1.47 lakh (28 per cent) between 30-40; 1.39 lakh (27 per cent) between 40-50; 96,000 (11 per cent) between 50-60, and 58,000 (9 per cent) over 60. (The last figure should be an eye-opener to those who retire with a comfortable or any pension at this age.) The question is, in which one of these age groups could persons engaged in unskilled manual labour qualify under “a person working for seven hours would normally earn a wage equal to the wage rate”?

This has very deep policy implications as it concerns the productivity of human labour and brings us directly to not only the question of calories (this being a measure of energy leads to the comparison with the productivity of machines), but also to the question of adequacy of wages. But first the calorie consumption required for this work.

According to the National Nutrition Institute of India, Hyderabad, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, an adult person engaged in heavy work requires a diet of 2860 kcal and one engaged in moderate work requires 2055 kcal per day. If we take a family of four consisting of a wife and two growing children, it means that livelihood security would require a diet of around 9025 kcal per day. The Indian Council of Medical Research has a table that gives the quantities of food items required for a balanced diet to take care of the malnutrition that afflicts some 60 per cent or more of our rural population and enhance its health.

But before we work out its cost, it should be appreciated that out of the 2860 kcal required by the wage earner per day what he uses on manual work is only 1430 kcal. In other words, 1430 kcal are used up by the process of life. In engineering and business calculations, this would be taken as. This is a hugely intriguing fact that is relevant in comparing the labour-cost of energy with that of machines.

Taking the maximum wage rate of Rs.137 per SOR unit, human energy costs Rs.0.096 per kcal during work time and an equal amount for downtime. Translated into electrical energy, this works out to Rs. 82 per kilowatt hour (kwh), called a unit. The cost of electricity in most states is about Rs. 7.20 per unit, which is less than one-eleventh the cost of human energy. A diesel-driven digger would cost Rs. 6.51 per unit or 12 times less.

Thus the cost of converting food intake into energy output for humans is very high, and the fact is that capitalism now drives machines 24 hours a day to minimise the cost of downtime, an option not available in the case of humans. Before considering this aspect of comparison, we must first understand the policy alternatives available to the government to make the wage rate fit the food bill.

Going back to the age distribution of the work force, which segment in it would be able to fulfil the requirements of the SOR and earn the full wage? Clearly the productivity of an able-bodied 25-year-old and a wasted 60-year-old cannot be the same. Thus it would happen that those who do not have the capacity would earn less than the minimum wage. Furthermore, 53 per cent of the workforce is female. They too cannot have the same capacity as a male. Yet this is a one-size-fits-all Act. Just what is the average earning capacity? Here, the national figures of wages paid and the number of person-days of work completed would give us the figure. This colossal scheme (which resembles the kind of mobilisation that Stalin ordered for collectivisation in 1929 and Mao for the Great Leap in the 1950s, with the difference that, unlike in the Soviet Union and China, participation in India is voluntary) generated 141 crore person-days of work up to December 12 in the year 2012 and 216 crore in the previous year. The total wage payment in 2012 was Rs.18,720 crore. The average wage payment works out to Rs.133 per day. However, there are many variations as some states have higher minimum wages than others. In discussions with officials of the Andhra Pradesh government, we learnt that the average earning in 2012-13 was Rs.106, which is Rs.31 or 23 per cent lower than the fixed maximum wage rate of Rs.137.


MNREGA volunteers are subject to two stipulations on wage calculation. One, wages would be based on the minimum daily wage for agricultural labour in each state. Two, wages be paid in accordance with the SOR fixed by the state governments, and the SOR be fixed such that a person working for seven hours would normally earn a wage equal to the wage rate.

Translating this to calories, according to the ICMR chart, the replenishment of 9025 kcal per day in Zaheerabad, Andhra Pradesh, would, with a balanced diet of proteins, greens, carbohydrates, fats, and milk, come to about Rs.179 at current market prices. Clearly this is much above the wage that an “enhanced livelihood” requires.

If, after taking so much trouble, even calorie replenishment is not or is just about achievable, would there not be a need to revisit the programme? During a recent visit to this area, I asked a labourer how inflation was affecting him. His answer was, “We just eat less.” Clearly the math has gone wrong at the first point of enhanced livelihood security: food.

What are the government’s options? There are three factors involved in arriving at the income level. The first is the ability of the labourer to earn, or his productivity; the second is the quantity of work set in the SOR, and the third is the wage rate. While the first factor is taken up later, a reader would not have to be too intuitive to realise that if the SOR is brought down (as it was by the Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh in 2009), it would mean an increase in wages; if wages were raised for the same quantity of work, it would mean the same thing. The architecture of the Act is clearly designed so that it is not used as a cover for a dole. Wages are to be had for a specific output. If either or both of the above alternatives are opted for, an element of a dole will be inherent in them. Freeloading is clearly not the way for an economy to prosper. Besides, the country has been facing double-digit inflation in food prices for the last two years or more. Economists have no explanation for it. Although it cannot be said that the MNREGA is among the prime factors, any expansion of expenditure in a situation in which the fiscal deficit is already alarming, would only add fuel to the fire. It would be counterproductive as labourers would be chasing their tails: higher wages, higher inflation, higher wages, higher inflation!

Clearly in a situation that requires stability, this would be a most undesirable outcome. So the alternatives of lowering SORs or increasing wages are not viable.

The world is neither flat nor linear. As water finds its level, so do labourers. The desire to live drives them. There are always four dimensions to a problem and so it is with the conundrum that has become apparent in the last paragraph.

One of these is that whereas in the day of Kaiser-i-Hind Victoria’s Raj, when relief works were first introduced to combat famine and there was no alternative to manual labour, today, in such operations as digging, hoeing, field clearing, construction, etc., there is a diminishing requirement for it. While one cause is ease of operations, the other is comparative costs. Having noted the cost of figures of human energy deployed above, we can move to a comparison of costs.

The translation of wage rates into output shows that a single labourer would need to dig and move 2.3 cu. m. of earth to earn Rs.137. As mentioned, this is not how the sites are organised and work is usually done by teams.

Also, consider two factors. The first is that very few men can deliver the quantity. The second that even if they can, a machine would achieve what 207 men would at that level of work.

However, the real cost of manual labour is often much higher. A team of labourers, with one digger and two movers, is reported to only be able to perform as low as 0.77 cu. m. in a day, which would result in a threefold increase to 620 in manpower and drive the costs to Rs.184 cu. m.. On the other hand, a mechanical digger would cost only Rs.45 per cu. m..

Which employer is going to take on a workforce of between 210 to 620 people to replace a machine? This is the second point at which the maths goes awry.

This too has consequences.

The employment cost figures taken above do not account for the difference in management costs. While these are taken into account in the per-day hiring rate of a machine, the cost of the army of people required for the management of the MNREGA works—panchayat functionaries, engineers, block development officers, state-level government officials, central level babus, and the Prime Minister who presides over the annual function in Delhi on February 2 every year—are not taken into account.

One is again reminded of Rajiv Gandhi’s finding that only 27 paise out of a Rs.1 budget for these schemes reaches the intended beneficiary.

What do the man vs machines energy figures portend for the future? Some recent reports in the Indian Express, March 26 and March 29, 2013, have a story to tell.

The former is titled: “MNREGS mockery: Rs.0.001 per day”. The reaction of a sardonic wit would be, “At least they got paid.” The wage rate in Rajasthan, from where this report comes, “is Rs.133, slated to go up to Rs.149 from April 1.” Going down the columns, one finds that after listing a series of places in which wage payments were abnormally low, an NGO (none less than the Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan Samiti or MKSS, headed by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey) reports “the most bizarre case was at Ajagara in Ajmer where 119 workers constructed a road for Rs.0.001.”

Reason? Investigating the scam, the chief secretary, C. K. Mathew, said that “in Dudu, it was found that workers were illegally using machinery; therefore the payment became very small.” Those known as jolawallahs in Delhi now have a standard CBI knee-jerk reaction to this: that administrative or police action is required. Even though Aruna Roy states that the scheme which “gives 100 days’ employment to needy rural people seems to have no guarantee of its own future... is not only losing its charm but also people’s interest in it. The abnormally low average wages... is [sic] giving a wrong message that no matter how much one works one cannot earn sufficient income even to have food.” When this comes from a Magsaysay Award winner and one of the protagonists of the Act, it is time to sit up and take note.

In support, The Hindu [April 23, 2013] reports that the Comptroller and Auditor General has found a significant decline in the per rural household employment generation from 54 in 2009-10 to 43 in 2011-12. But Roy’s statement begs the question was to whether it is “giving a wrong message.” Earlier, another NGO of repute, DISHA of Gujarat, conducted a study and concluded that owing to the low wage rate, “the calorie deficiency was pushing the relief workers—who were marginal farmers and agricultural labourers—into malnutrition.”

The message it is giving is truthful: that calories are not replenished. Is the scheme that seeks to augment livelihoods ironically pushing those who hope to benefit from it back into the well of poverty from which it promises to rescue them? Even if, in deference to the argumentative Indian, there is something marginally in its favour, is there some way in which it can make an appreciable difference to rural lives?

Does the very wide margin, nearly 100 per cent, in the cost of manual labour and machines give a clue? Adam Smith’s invisible hand will suggest that it would be profitable for the Dudu labourer to hire a machine for Rs.46 per cu. m. out of the daily wage of Rs.149 and pocket the balance of Rs.103. The only physical effort it would take is to put his thumb impression or signature on a receipt—with payment in advance! Calories consumed are nil. Those who throw up their hands in moral outrage at this proposition must first ask whether a person will work in bad conditions for a wage that does not augment his livelihood.

In the days of the Raj, its officers could command with a stick or a sword. Lord Salisbury’s instructions to the viceroy, Lord Lytton, on the Kaiser-i-Hind celebrations, were that they should be “gaudy enough to impress the orientals” and furthermore it should be a pageant which hid “the nakedness of the sword on which we really rely.” Then, when relief works were set up, “the labour test imposed upon the able-bodied”. Today, no such sword or test exists and if there is one, it is one that hangs over the heads of politicians who seek election or re-election when the legislature’s term is over, even as the rural proletariat find that the wages paid are inadequately low.

What is the option available to the aam admi when he finds that the government’s poverty alleviation schemes do not solve his problems? He votes the incumbent out. The next government doesn’t have a technological breakthrough to offer either. It fixes the issue price of rice at Rs.1 instead of Rs.2 per kilo. What does that do for adequate nutrition? Not much difference than in living under the sword or by the vote if it doesn’t.

In Section V, I said that from the three variables available to the government—­productivity, SOR, wage rates—the first, productivity, would be discussed later. This also takes technology within its ambit. We should start with the second report in the Indian Express of March 29, headlined “When machine ‘replaced’ man as NREGA labourer”. It says that in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra, Rs.36 crore of works were done by the Forest Department, supposedly “a manual effort under the...MNREGA” in four months, of which “Rs.32 crore was done in only nine of 56 gram panchayats in the Zari-Jamni tehsil... The total of Rs.36 crore for 2011-12 marks a hundredfold increase from the Rs.36 lakhs for work completed in the same tehsil last year.” The objection of the collector was that the government’s Forest Department had hired contractors to do the work with machines. Both are a contravention of the MNREGA.

There are four views that one may consider in this case. One is that of the businessman who would be overjoyed that his turnover was shining, having increased by several magnitudes. He would most likely go to offer gold to Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati. The emotion of the 13,000 labourers (of whom only 610 were faked!) would be delight that their wages fixed at Rs.127 per day or Rs.12,700 per annum had more than doubled to Rs.27,700. Their concern would be that they not be swindled out of their share of the take. Taking the payout for machine costs, this would work out to at least Rs.16 crore. The legal or administrative mind would see a scam, as the collector does, having stopped the disbursement of Rs.26 crore, allegedly on account of the contravention by a government department. Thus there is an internecine clash between the government’s collectorate and a department. This, inevitably, has resulted in a third party, an Andolan Samiti, stepping in. Its lawyer is so sure of his ground that he contends that “Nobody is saying works haven’t been done. Everything is has been done as per procedure... We are not saying release the money to the contractors. Let the government deposit the money in labourers’ accounts.” He would know how to transfer the contractor’s share. The last view would be of the technocrat who would marvel at the increase in per capita productivity and try to find out whether the magic is due to man, organisation or machine.

If the MNREGA is to continue, the question of productivity would have to be addressed. How are labourers to earn at least the full wage available, even if that doesn’t fully address the nutrition deficit? The able-bodied in the age group 18-40 achieve the SOR in two or three hours while the weaker segment of the workforce cannot even meet the target in seven. Presently there is an income ceiling, the minimum wage available to agricultural workers. Why should there be a limit? Is there any way of removing that by linking wages to productivity? This is the third point of mathematical failure. And since GDP growth is God, would they not like a real increase in the yield from their calories as Mukesh Ambani does from his gas wells? No where is the divide in this country between the cloud computing do-gooding intellectual and his intended rice-bowl-for-the-day labourer better illustrated than in these works. If the UPA is voted out would the NDA have the technology and management for this? This zero capacity is the fourth place where the mathematics fails.

Is there a way of improving the capacity of the weaker segment so that it can earn at least the full Rs.137 per day instead of Rs.106? Here we come, as one example, to the implements and tools that they use. The most widely-used is an 8 kg crowbar (gianta) and then a hoe (kassi) and other digging implements. In India most of these are of primeval vintage both with regard to their metallurgy and design. Crowbars are much too heavy for use by women, and have no grips leading to calluses, etc; hoes have short handles of unseasoned wood fixed into the blade at random angles that cause back problems and come off periodically.

Women carrying around 10 kg of water or soil in matkas over long distances are the favoured image for cover pages, being the preferred illustration of someone’s romantic idea of rural India. It may break their back but it looks appropriately rustic, modest and traditional. What they transport in ten rounds from the source of water to worksite can be accomplished in one trip by using a 100 litre water carrier on wheels.

For the MNERGA is to continue, productivity should be addressed. How are labourers to earn at least the full wage available, even if that does not fully address the nutrition deficit?

Would it amaze anybody if I disclosed that in this scheme, on which Rs.2,05,500 crore has been budgeted since 2006-07, there is no provision for improvement of design for productivity, protection of health, and prevention of injury?

What if the productivity with improved tools and better work methods had gone from Rs.106 to, say, Rs.170? And why do doctrinaire jholawallahs insist on luddite manual labour without power? A person digging a ditch or a road with a power-driven jackhammer or clearing a bush with a handheld power-driven garden shear is classified as a manual, blue-collar worker all over the world. In India, he has to remain in the Late Iron Age of 300 BC to qualify. The result is that manual labour has out-priced itself from agriculture and construction, the other large sectors that provided employment. This unintended consequence is the fifth failure of the Act.

Deprived of opportunities in these sectors, rural folk are drifting to clusters that are turning villages into towns. The 2001 census counted about 5000 towns; in 2011 the number was up to 8000. Here is a narrative from M.K. Venu’s column (I.E. 22.4.13):

“I spoke to a taxi driver, Ashok Kumar, who has a 3.5 acre piece of farm land near Bulandshahr in Western UP. He earns about Rs.10,000 a month, and sends about Rs.6,000 home to his wife and two kids. He spends about Rs.900 per month on the schooling of both children, including their daily pocket money of Rs.10. Grain and vegetables come from the farm. Interestingly, the farm activity is outsourced. How? Ashok’s younger brother hires a tractor for sowing and harvesting. Ashok says farmers in nearby villages have begun to aggregate their small farms to collectively outsource the hard work of sowing and harvesting through mechanised means. This is a big change [it is an old story in Punjab and Haryana]. Earlier, they would physically do the back-breaking work and have no leisure time. Now Ashok’s brother, after outsourcing the farm work, has enough time to study at a technical training institute. Soon the family will become a multiple income-earning entity, instead of just depending on agriculture.”

This is a conversation that is personal to many to us who keep domestic servants and ride taxis. Labourers will strive for and attain and go beyond the wage level that jholawallahs have tried to, but not ensured.

We have not touched on the aspect of asset creation. If works were planned with any seriousness, they would have yielded a return that would add bounce to the rural economy. Regrettably, this is not the case. What is created by May is mostly washed away by the moonsoon in June. Here is the last part of the math that has gone wrong. No payback. This is the sixth point of failure. Too late to correct the past, but a lesson for the future.

The time for a review has come. With opportunities in other sectors withering, will all that is left for unskilled persons be one hundred days of MNREGA work? Or will review come in the wake of labourers deserting the scheme as it yields inadequate wages to workers who see television shows of high-income luxury lives and fantasise about the seducers and seductresses that inhabit the idiot box?

Has the MNREGA staved off hunger? Perhaps, but it hasn’t filled the gap in nutrition. Will the Gordian knot of work quotas, man-machine calorie costs, ceiling on wages, political incapacity for fostering innovation, out-priced labour, and ephemeral non-performing assets strangle this well-intentioned effort? If Queen Victoria, the skin-flint Kaiser-i-Hind, dealt with famine with parsimonious relief works, Malthusian theology, and input-output energy tests before allowing the needy admission to them, will Sonia Gandhi keep walking gingerly in her footsteps by keeping crores just above the hunger line? Or will she (the UPA) or Narendra Modi (the NDA) be the Sikander-e-Hind who will open the floodgates of plentitude by cutting the knot and introducing a new mode: the Mark 21st Century MNERGA? That is the question. The ‘arrows of outrageous fortune’ will fly in the election that looms.

(The author wishes to acknowledge the work on Excel on energy costs by his colleague Dr. S. Satyamurthy.)