Ashwini’s vision is an India where “right to work” financial support for India’s rural farmers shifts from being a short-term “emergency” band-aid to a system of public finance that provides income to all community members, including the cost of proposed and agreed upon projects designed to ensure community resilience and combat climate change.
The New Idea
Ashwini’s fundamental work revolves around reframing how people look at and understand governmental programs, as she identifies the key levers within the system to ultimately have tremendous impact at the grassroots level. She empowers and strengthens the capacity of local communities and government entities in order to improve the efficacy of rural development programs like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). As she recognizes the potential of development programs to provide livelihood opportunities and alleviate poverty in rural communities, her insight is that much of the shortfall in current performance and long-term potential of these programs is related in one way or another to improvements in the functioning of MGNREGA, the world’s largest right-to-work fund.
Ashwini engages with the government as a volunteer and conducts extensive research through her own fundraising, using the data to drive policy level changes in these schemes to ultimately uplift livelihoods of the marginalized population of India – primarily poor farming communities and women. Beginning in Maharashtra in 2007 and then at the federal level in 2009, Ashwini ushered in a new era of analysis and evaluation, of both how gaps in the MGNREGA’s internal systems could be improved to address issues such as the identification of recipients and cash transfers, but more importantly, how MGNREGA needed to be more efficiently blended into the functioning of multiple departments and programs at both the national and state level with authority in a range of areas, from crop insurance to the functioning of elections at the district level (a.k.a. Zila Parishad) to empowering more women to serve on these District Councils.
Ashwini has brought in a wide set of otherwise disconnected stakeholders such as CSOs, IT firms, farmers, and the affected communities themselves, into the discussion to ensure that a strong system is in place that works agnostic of the actors in the delivery mechanism. She also brings in best practices for monitoring by using technology to track fund and work allocation, payment transfers etc., and for policy by conducting comparative studies across states in India, where she compared the implementation of the MGNREGA in Maharashtra versus Andhra Pradesh which was excelling with the program.
Ashwini is now working to ensure that her learnings from codifying the MGNREGA program can be incorporated into various other dimensions of economic development programs, such as the National Food Security Act (NFSA), under which she is reviving millets and facilitating the growth of pomegranates for improved productivity, and the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), through which she is working with various stakeholders to improve the understanding and implementation of crop insurance to allow for disaster mitigation for farmers in drought prone areas.
With 2023 being the international year of Millets, Ashwini has joined the Maharashtra State Action Group on Millets and is presenting her work in various conferences and programs for other CSOs to take it up. She is also working with Ashoka Fellow, Anil Verma, on the mission to revive millets across India.
India embarked on a process of economic liberalization in the 1980s that picked up steam in the 1990s following a balance of payments crisis – since then, India has enjoyed impressive growth rates. However, economic liberalization often results in groups of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ since its benefits often do not reach all sections of the population. In this context, direct intervention to support the marginalized in rural regions was envisaged through a workfare program enshrined in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This act is based on an earlier version of the workfare program called the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) that had been implemented in the state of Maharashtra for three decades. The basic tenets of the program were to provide work on demand to adults in rural areas by employing unskilled manual labor to construct water and soil conservation structures to support rainfed farming. Similarly, MGNREGA, initiated in 2005, is a program with twin objectives of creating wage employment and durable assets in rural areas.
Initially, the program covered only the 200 most economically disadvantaged districts of India, but by 2008 it had been taken to all of rural India. Since the productivity of dry-land agriculture is linked with access to water through watershed development and the availability of wells, infrastructure, MGNREGA includes a wide range of assets like farm ponds, water storage structures, watershed structures, land development, roads, plantations, and other rural assets aimed mostly at water and soil conservation. By 2015, the program had reached 50 million households, each averaging 40 to 54 days in a year, instead of the 100 days of work that the program allows. MGNREGA itself is by design more complex to deliver than most development programs because it is not a one-time event like most other rural development programs, and it requires the coordination of multiple actors across central government agencies, state government agencies, public sectors, private sector, public-private partnerships, and more. Furthermore, this is not a program implemented through a single line of hierarchy. The coordination for delivery has to be performed every week for at least half a year across rural India, across multiple stakeholders within the system including block-level officers, different state departments, IT sector, and on-ground beneficiaries.
While there is now documentation of the impacts of MGNREGA on outcomes such as wages and consumption, very little is known about the types of work created under this program and the impact on people’s lives. In terms of demand, about one-fourth of rural households are engaged in MGNREGA itself and women make up 47% of total participants. COVID-19 induced nationwide lockdowns and India saw reverse migration in huge numbers, leading to demand from over 22 million people who wished to work government livelihood programs, which is part of a larger trend: there is always unprecedented demand for such programs that remains unmet.
These systemic problems in the implementation of a policy as big as the MGNREGA, are common to other livelihoods, agriculture, and development programs by the Government of India, such as the crop insurance schemes, National Food Security Act, etc., which are not understood by their beneficiaries, and often lack thorough monitoring of their implementation. All of these gaps lead to a lack of accountability and pressure from the folks for whom these policies are built. MGNREGA being such a critical scheme still remains one of the most underutilized (in some cases, less than 50% funds are utilized), given the cumbersome processes and federal implementation of the program. Systemic gaps in the implementation of these governmental programs need to be addressed along with creating feedback loops and communication channels between policy designers, implementors, and grassroots beneficiaries.
After having worked on the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in the early 2000s – a right-to-work scheme that spans across Maharashtra – Ashwini, along with individuals of other CSOs, began to develop the framework for the MGNREGA, beginning in 2005. However, soon after the bill passed in 2005, Ashwini realized that implementation of the scheme was far from ideal: while the law was passed by the central government, its implementation is a state matter and differs from state to state. Ashwini believed that systemic gaps could be understood better by comparing how individual states of India were performing with this rural program. She initiated an extensive study comparing Andhra Pradesh, which was doing well in the implementation of MGNREGA, and Maharashtra, which wasn’t at par with respect to its reach and monitoring. This led her to believe that due to certain differences in how the government has developed implementation and delivery mechanisms, the upliftment of livelihoods in the regions have varied significantly. While Andhra Pradesh thrived in getting these funds into the hands of marginalized communities by using technology and a decentralized approach, Maharashtra struggled to reach that scale.
Upon this observation, in 2007, Ashwini started reaching out to various stakeholders in the government hierarchy chain: village, block, tehsil, district, state, and even national (a.k.a. “central” in India) stakeholders including CSOs and government officers to map processes that existed in getting funds to the grassroot beneficiaries. She spearheaded a bottom-up approach to understand the problems and nuances that existed by speaking to district level collectors and marginal farmers. She also started augmenting this feedback by data driven research in 2010 – in one of which she measured the disparity between working hours and payments and presented the findings to Block Development Officers and the state secretary to signal the right changes in the processes. Through this effort, Ashwini laid the foundation for attracting new stakeholders to be a part of the overhaul of rural development programs with an independent comparative analysis of the initial roll out of MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. It made an extensive set of recommendations about how Maharashtra could improve its performance, and Ashwini ensured that the report was widely disseminated, not simply in government circles but also through the articles she wrote for newspapers and journals, with the Government of Maharashtra taking wide scale interest in this report.
Combining the learnings from her work with the government and rural communities of Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Bihar, Ashwini was able to articulate the gaps that existed within the system itself and conduct extensive media outreach for awareness at scale. On multiple occasions, Ashwini has and continues to publish columns in newspapers like The Economic Times and Economic Weekly and has hosted her own radio show to ensure that this critical information is shared repeatedly – until the average marginalized villager’s voice is difficult to ignore by the government and society.
At the same time, Ashwini began to build on the lack of awareness about these programs at the grassroots level, along with limited confidence to deal with the bureaucracy that allows for rightful employment for marginalized communities. To tackle this, she started mobilizing youth volunteers from remote areas of Maharashtra and organizing capacity building programs: disseminating information to the local communities by building a simplified narrative through illustrative booklets and role plays. The aim was to build confidence in reaching out to government authorities and channeling back the learnings for future interactions, training beneficiaries in monitoring the situation for their own communities, and also nurturing the volunteers to spread awareness to nearby regions which catalyzes an organic spread of information – even small wins at the grassroots level championed this spread of information and leadership within communities.
Circling back to this cycle of re-engineering the system with feedback and improvement in various implementation processes underwritten by Ashwini – in 2012, she started to look for ways to strengthen existing delivery mechanisms and improve systemic processes. This allowed for a greater impact from each rupee that was spent by MGNREGA to uplift livelihoods. The aim of fund dissemination under programs like MGNREGA is not only to provide income transfer to an individual, but also to allow the generation of sustainable and durable assets that assist in income flow, along with increased productivity. The aim is to eventually limit the financial assistance that the local communities would need going forward. To that end, because Maharashtra has very low irrigation – less than 20% of its land is irrigated – and spells of droughts worsen the situation for rain-fed farmers, Ashwini knew that something needed to be done. She pieced the puzzle together and realized that funds from MGNREGA could be utilized to build water conservation structures based on local ecological needs, which is the longer-term solution for combating the scarcity of water in the region.
Ashwini’s work has led to massive impacts in the functioning of MGNREGA in Maharashtra with an increase in its spending budget from USD 39.3 million in 2009 to USD 288 million in 2012. Apart from mobilizing over 700 youth and impacting 200,000 individuals from rural Maharashtra to gain access to this program, Ashwini’s efforts on national level policy guidelines have led to the formation of the MGNREGA Consortium which includes government officers, various CSOs, and representatives of the local communities from across India. Through persistently writing articles in various media outlets, combined with a non-combative approach with the government, Ashwini is combining grassroots-level practicality, policy design, and extensive research to sustainably improve the lives of rural communities for years to come.
Ashwini has played a pivotal role in driving this impact – their efforts have brought in a 12 to 1 return on investment: for every rupee Pragati Abhiyan has spent, MGNREGA has spent 12 rupees on infrastructure development and job wages. Besides this, Ashwini’s work within the communities has enabled the members to develop confidence, establishing communication pipelines at various levels within the system, thereby allowing the villagers themselves to solve any future challenges through groups of village volunteers. She has also established dialogues between historically siloed departments in the government, allowing for easier communication and thus quicker policy level changes. A key differentiator in the implementation of MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra was that the former had a dedicated department for handling right-to-work programs such as MGNREGA whereas the latter implemented the strategies through the revenue department, leading to slow-moving implementation processes in Maharashtra. Once Ashwini came in with evidence of how the structuring has caused inefficiencies, the departments were restructured to allow for a more independent functioning of the team responsible to manage funds under MGNREGA – a pivotal step in improving the implementation systemically.
In order for Ashwini to drive this impact, she has raised funds from the likes of Ford Foundation, Maharashtra Foundation, Tribal Development Department of Maharashtra, Canada India Village Aid, and Dasra – and while she does not take a fee from the government by working as a consultant, another income stream is the service fee for organizing training sessions for officers and teams of various departments of the government.
Another critical aspect of her impact is research; Ashwini has been able to work alongside major universities such as University of British Columbia, Indian Statistical Institute, and Indian School of Business, through which she has contributed to and published over 30 research papers to date – something that has been pivotal in generating evidence behind her recommendations to governmental bodies at different levels, allowing for data-driven policy level changes at scale. One key research she conducted in collaboration with UBC involved over 5000 households across 2 blocks of Maharashtra and spanned across 3 years to conclusively and quantitatively understand how MGNREGA has changed lives for the better. Ashwini is also the core member of the National Consortium on MGNREGA, a network of CSOs across India through which she has been able to take her learnings to effect in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha, and the Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network, a network of organizations working with rainfed farmers across India. Ashwini is also a part of the Rapid Rural Community Response (RCRC) Network – a coalition of CSOs working on rural livelihoods. Recently, Ashwini has also been invited to join the Board of Directors for Ideas for India - an economics and policy portal that publishes evidence-based analysis and commentary on issues pertaining to growth and development in India.
Her vision continues to build upon her work with the marginalized individuals – women, tribal communities, and farmers – by exploring further dimensions of livelihoods so development programs like MGNREGA can reach scale. She has begun to expand her work stream to investigate crop productivity and nutritional security, which are key aspects of any farming community. Ashwini is focusing her efforts at a policy design level with the purpose of understanding the systems within specific government programs, like the crop insurance schemes, namely the PMFBY (Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna) that she is currently championing, owing to its very limited understanding in the government on the know-hows of the program. However, PMFBY has immense potential to help farmers recover from droughts, without which the farmers would not receive any income in times of distress. The other system Ashwini is currently trying to grip is that of the Zila Parishad, the district level of a state, which coordinates the activities of the Panchayats in all its developmental activities. While her aim is to improve livelihoods for communities, she plans to improve the ecosystems around those communities as a by-product of sustainable practices: high value and climate resilient cropping, along with better irrigation practices with localized context are key focus areas for Ashwini.
In summary, Ashwini has a multi-pronged approach to improving livelihoods in India. She has picked a systemic problem, which, upon any reasonable success, has the potential to radically change lives for the better, and her fundamental approach to solving this problem with the tool of process mapping and subsequent process re-engineering is one that can be replicated across geographies and different livelihoods programs. MGNREGA along with other such right-to-work programs and Ashwini’s vision share the same path: they both are self-cannibalizing in that through their work, they hope to someday build enough sustainable assets and educated/aware communities so that there is no longer a need for any such livelihood upliftment program anymore.
Ashwini’s father was the first person in his family to reach 10th standard. On his own he taught himself to read, write and speak English and made sure that Ashwini’s home was full of books. Her mother too had achieved a 10th standard education. Growing up, her family struggled financially so Ashwini started working at a young age and began tutoring younger students. Despite financial obstacles, Ashwini moved to Pune to immerse herself in a progressive academic atmosphere. She financed all of this from fees earned by tutoring.
At the same time, she got involved in social movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save The Narmada River) and the resulting movements from the Bhopal Gas Explosion. Although she was majoring in Mathematics, her focus turned to Economics, and that led to her realization that, fundamentally, the issue was poverty and how it could be overcome.
After graduation she worked with an economics focused research organization in Pune. In the course of this work, she worked with and then joined Vachan, a CSO working with 25 tribal communities near Nashik. Several years later she was tapped to become Vachan’s leader. Her experience working with these communities sharpened her conviction that scale could not be achieved without the government and what the sector needed was a new kind of organization not dependent on government contracts or CSR style corporate sponsorship. Such an organization had to be able to cultivate trust simultaneously at the federal, state, and local levels, and with a new generation of stakeholders to ensure the long-term resilience of MGNREGA as well as the numerous programs that, if properly connected, could transform MGNREGA into a powerful driver of social change.
To realize her vision, in 2006, Ashwini founded Pragati Abhiyan, based on her strong conviction that the citizen sector needed to create continuously evolving “independent steering capabilities” to realize the full potential of right-to-work at the federal, state, and local levels. By 2008 she had worked through the detailed set of solutions for Maharashtra’s lagging performance in implementing MGNREGA, convinced the principal secretary of Maharashtra, Mr. V. Giriraj, to implement the detailed recommendations included in her report, which had been done without government financial support, and made it widely available through extensive press coverage. The government of Maharashtra worked with (formally and informally – no financial transaction at all) her organization to oversee the process of implementing these recommendations and, as a result, she attracted the attention of Mr. Jairam Ramesh, then Minister of State for Rural Development of India. He put her in charge of a federal effort to recommend changes to the law and regulations and to create monitoring systems to ensure proper follow-up.