As India faces the onslaught of another severe drought, and water, food, and employment dry up, the government will claim that it is doing its best to cope with the adversity. But, given the facts, that will be a patently false statement.
The cynical attitude towards the MGNREGA is an example of how policymakers are deliberately and knowingly — by squeezing funds and subverting the legal mandate of the law — causing immeasurable misery and suffering to people. Through the fund squeeze, the government has consciously crippled the MGNREGA’s ability to help people facing drought.
Officially, the drought has affected over a third of the country — nine out of the 29 states, 248 out of 660 districts, 2,327 out of 6,800 blocks, and 96,954 out of 2,57,000 panchayats. Unlike natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, which destroy ecosystems in a few moments, droughts take hold slowly and provide clear warnings to policymakers, thus giving them a chance to plan and execute effective drought management strategy. Yet, once it settles in, a mismanaged drought can wipe out economic progress made over decades, pushing an entire generation back into abject poverty.
The MGNREGA was inspired by the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 1977, wherein policymakers found wage employment as the best way to empower people against drought. The funding for the state scheme came from four taxes, imposed on those less affected by the drought. The money so received went into a fund dedicated to the scheme.
However, the MGNREGA hasn’t been as fortunate. Despite its proven success, the scheme is itself facing a monetary drought. Some facts: A whopping Rs 10,588 crore is currently pending in payment delays.
In other words, nine crore workers in 25 states are facing illegal delays in wage payments. More than half of this amount is in drought-affected states.
The saddest part is that notwithstanding the government’s grand announcement — increasing the number of workdays to 150 in the nine drought-affected states — all these states have a negative cash balance. It’s hardly surprising then that only 5 per cent households have completed 150 days of work. This is conclusive proof that the government is ignoring the two most important legal requirements of the MGNREGA — work on demand, and full and timely payment of wages.
Despite its proven success, the scheme is itself facing a monetary drought.
The fund squeeze sets off a vicious cycle — delayed payments leading to lesser demand and still fewer payments — resulting in helplessness and distress migration. The continued shortage of funds severely undermines the credibility of the law.
State governments and local administrators, too, are in a quandary: The law requires them to provide work but they don’t have enough money to pay the wages. Communication accessed under the RTI Act shows that state governments have been unsuccessfully appealing for adequate fund releases, and are being forced to ration funds for the year. This distortion turns the law into a cruel joke.
But drought-affected people are not the only ones distressed. Many company heads, who have unpaid dues stacking up as bank NPAs, such as Vijay Mallya, too, have been forced into distress migration! In the budget, there’s a full section on taxes forgone for the corporate sector. And on March 23, Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for communication and information technology, announced a Rs 14,724 crore Holi gift for government employees, with a 6 per cent increase in their daily allowance. It’s clear that there are many competing priorities in India.
As prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri had suggested that the well-off should forgo meals so that the starving could be fed. That noble thought never worked. The MGNREGA was an attempt to institutionalise responsibility and move beyond such individual efforts. But this has been systematically undermined, with disastrous consequences. The MGNREGA is not the only measure required to fight a drought but an honest implementation of the law could make a huge difference. There’s no substitute for an honest effort.