The spate of Maoist attacks on security personnel in Chhattisgarh this week serves as a reminder that Moaist insurgency is the single biggest internal security threat faced by India. This column analyses the impact of MNREGA on Maoist violence and finds a spike in police-initiated attacks on Maoists following the implementation of the job guarantee scheme in 2006. This is possibly because MNREGA provides credibility to the government’s commitment to development, making the local population more willing to share information on Maoists.
A large part of the debate on the effectiveness
of India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee
Act (MNREGA) among policymakers and academics has focused on the economic
impact of the programme. Questions around the effect of MNREGA on employment,
agricultural wages and productivity, and so on are undoubtedly very important.
However, given the size and ambitiousness of the programme, it is also
important to understand its broader impact. An analysis of the cost
effectiveness of MNREGA should include all benefits and drawbacks of the
programme, even those that go beyond the narrow economic consequences.
Impact of MNREGA on Maoist violence
One important area in which
one may expect MNREGA to have an important impact is national security and the
intensity of Maoist violence, more specifically. While Maoist insurgents have
been active since the late 1960s, the intensity of the conflict increased
significantly after the Communist Party of India (Maoist) was formed from
previously competing groups in 2004. The government has acknowledged that military
strength alone has not been a successful strategy in reducing the intensity of
the conflict. In 2006, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the Maoists as the “single biggest internal security challenge
ever faced by our country”.
The aim of the Maoist
insurgency is to obtain a liberated zone in central India since they believe
that the lower classes are being neglected by the Indian government in favour
of elites. Civilians in highly Maoist-affected areas play a crucial role in the
conflict by aiding both the police
and Maoists through information provision and other forms of explicit and
implicit support (Mukherji 2012). Since areas with high Maoist violence
intensity also tend to be economically underdeveloped, one might expect MNREGA
to have an especially important impact, both through providing actual economic
benefits as well as through making the government’s commitment to economic
development in those areas more credible for the local population. This means
that MNREGA may improve the relationship between civilians and the Indian
government in Maoist-affected areas and thereby change the nature of the
conflict and the intensity of civilian support for both sides. If this is the
case, then MNREGA may have important broader impacts on daily life in India
that go beyond rural labour-market effects.
Our paper looks at the
effect of MNREGA on Maoist violence in the early days of the scheme; we exploit
the fact that the programme was rolled out in different implementation phases
over time according to an algorithm that prioritised poorer districts (Khanna and Zimmermann 2014). This feature allows us to compare districts with
similar poverty levels and other socioeconomic characteristics at a time when some
districts had received MNREGA benefits a year earlier than the other districts.
This similarity helps rule out that there are systematic differences between
districts with and without access to MNREGA that could possibly drive the
Using data from the South-Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP),1 we code up the location, date and number of
fatalities of all Maoist-related incidents between 2005 and 2008 in 17 major
Indian states. SATP collects all this information from media reports, including
details on who initiated the attacks. This allows us to compare the amount of
violence in Phase 1 districts that received MNREGA to similar Phase 2
districts that did not. Our dataset contains 418 districts, of which 158 are
predicted to be in Phase 1 by the algorithm.
We find that Maoist violence
increases in districts after the implementation of MNREGA, with the effects concentrated
in the first few months after the start of the programme in 2006. This increase
in violence is driven by more police-initiated attacks, and Maoists are the
most affected group in terms of fatalities, injuries and arrests. However, there
is also some evidence of more Maoist violence against civilians.
These empirical patterns are
consistent with the idea that MNREGA makes civilians in Maoist-affected areas
more willing to support the government by sharing information on insurgents
with the police. This makes police and military forces more effective at
tracking down insurgents and leads to more deaths, arrests and injuries among
the Maoists. At the same time, Maoists are increasing attacks against civilians
to punish local communities suspected of being police informers. A number of newspaper articles on Maoist incidents that we use in our analysis explicitly mention that
Maoists leave leaflets in villages after attacks on civilians that brand the
affected individuals as police informers. At the same time, there is little
evidence of the Maoists directly sabotaging MNREGA projects in our analysis. There
is also anecdotal and quantitative evidence of actual economic benefits being
low in the early stages of MNREGA, for example due to implementation delays and
low implementation quality (see for example, Niehaus and Sukhtankar 2013, Zimmermann
2014). This suggests that the information-sharing effects are less likely to be
directly linked to actual economic rewards, but more to the promise of future benefits
of the programme.
Despite the short time
window of our analysis, there is reason to believe that the effects we find are
of consequence. The former Indian Home Secretary Gopal K. Pillai said in 2010, for example, that the intelligence gathering system
of the police had improved over the last couple of years, making police forces
more successful at catching Maoists. These developments are also recognised by
the insurgents who are accusing the government of turning the local population
into police informers and of using surrendered Maoists as sources of
information (see, for example, excerpts from press reports from 2007 here). Between 2006 and 2012, the
Maoist insurgency has been losing ground in stronghold states like Jharkhand
and Chhattisgarh, for example, and has been forced to move out of Andhra Pradesh
Implementation is key
Our results show that MNREGA
has had a major impact on the national security situation in India. These
effects should be taken into account when thinking about the cost effectiveness
of the programme and potential reforms of the scheme. It is important to note
that the continued support of civilians towards the government due to MNREGA
over a longer time period is likely to depend crucially on the actual realised
economic benefits that the programme delivers rather than a continued promise
of some future rewards. Improvements in implementation quality are therefore an
important factor. More broadly, the government may benefit substantially from combining
military operations with local anti-poverty programmes that make the local population willing
to support the government and to provide information on insurgents.
1. A website managed by the Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi.
- Hindustan Times (2006), ‘Naxalism
Biggest Threat: PM’, 13 April 2006.
- Khanna, G and L Zimmermann
(2014), ‘Guns and Butter?
Fighting Violence with the Promise of Development’, Working Paper.
- Mukherji, N (2012), The Maoists in India: Tribals Under Siege,
London: Pluto Press, United Kingdom.
- Niehaus, Paul and Sandip
Sukhtankar (2013), “Corruption Dynamics: The Golden Goose Effect”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy,
- Pillai, GK (2010), ‘Left-wing extremism in India’, Lecture delivered at IDSA, 10 March 2010.
- Zimmermann, L (2014), ‘Why Guarantee Employment? Evidence from a Large
Indian Public-Works Program’,