The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) was rolled out across India in 2008. Following positive appraisals of MGNREGS based on quantitative data (e.g. Uppal 2009), this paper uses household survey data from adults and from children aged 7–8 and individual and group interview data from young people aged 15 to 16 and from key informants to explore firstly whether these appraisals are confirmed by
young people’s accounts of the scheme’s impact, and secondly whether the evidence from the three villages sub-sampled in the qualitative research suggest its success is sustainable (since instances of financial mismanagement, growing resentment among local landlords, and other problems suggest it may not be). Two positive findings are that participation in MGNREGS is high and a substantial proportion of participants are poor, which suggests that the programme is successfully targeting poor people. There are striking examples of benefits to individuals, intended and unintended, for example, some female labourers will no longer accept a daily wage of Rs 40 (US$0.40). There may also be significant environmental benefits, although these will not be fully evident for another three to four years. However, those who are landless have not benefited as much as expected. The main beneficiaries in the three villages have been individual farmers, often from higher castes, and to some extent administering officials. So while interview and survey data demonstrate beneficial effects, the mismanagement described in this paper is having a corrosive effect on trust and social relationships. This unintended consequence threatens the sustainability of the scheme and its potential to reduce socio-economic inequalities and vulnerability across the life course.