Mohandas Pai, currently an advisor to the BJP government in Rajasthan, was asked on television how the government could “control” social sector expenditure, more specifically on the MGNREGA. He answered that the NDA should simply learn from and follow former Union minister P. Chidambaram’s policy of “benign neglect”. Clarifying further, he explained how the UPA finance minister had frozen allocations to MGNREGA at about Rs 33,000 crore for several years. With inflation, this led to a spiralling financial squeeze every consecutive year.
The MGNREGA website shows that 2013-14 ended with unpaid wages of a monstrous amount of Rs 4,800 crore. This translates to immense financial hardship for crores of India’s poorest households. One cannot even imagine their additional frustration and trauma as they knocked on the doors of the government for weeks and months to claim their rightful wages.
This will be the first time that the MGNREGA budget will be prepared by a party that was in opposition, even though it joined the unanimous vote to pass the act in 2005. We wait to see whether Chidambaram’s wilful negligence will continue when the Union budget is presented today. There is no doubt that if the demand-based aspect of the MGNREGA is deliberately counteracted through budgetary constriction, it will eventually die a death by asphyxiation.
But the Rajasthan chief minister seems to want to finish the act altogether. On June 7, Vasundhara Raje did the unthinkable by suggesting that the MGNREGA would be better as a scheme rather than a law. In a letter to Union Rural Development Minister Nitin Gadkari, she said, “It is a moot issue why rural employment should be guaranteed by an act, and why such employment cannot be delivered, or even guaranteed, as a scheme. It is difficult to see the advantages of an act, except that it can lead to increased litigation by all manner of organisations. Whether it is to be an NREGA or NREGS is a matter of debate and decision.”
This letter shocked the people of Rajasthan, as it followed repeated assurances, all through the Lok Sabha election campaign in the state that social sector policy would be strengthened and not undermined. When questioned about “rumours” that the MGNREGA would be diluted, Raje and other senior BJP leaders condemned them and repeatedly assured people that the new government would, in fact, strengthen the act by improving implementation and delivery. Her letter to Gadkari has revealed the doublespeak of the BJP, and has sent waves of panic and anger through rural Rajasthan. The MGNREGA has, with all its poor implementation, proved to be a lifeline for the rural poor in many states. It is unimaginable that there should be a proposal by the government to dismantle a legal mechanism acknowledged across the world for its effectiveness in overcoming endemic poverty and empowering the poor.
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We would do well to recall that the MGNREGA owes its imagination to the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act. However, it remedies some of the flaws in the earlier architecture. Going back to a scheme would push us back to systemic patronage, discretion and unbridled corruption already seen under the Employment Assurance Scheme, and drought relief works. A scheme has neither “rights” for the people nor legally mandated accountability mechanisms. If the act has been less than effective, a scheme will deliver nothing for the poor, pitted as they are against vested interests.
The MGNREGA is the first social sector legislation in the world that creates economic entitlements and a guarantee of wage employment. It follows that the main opposition to the MGNREGA has come from a powerful set of landowners, contractors and industrialists, who have been reacting to the increased bargaining power of poor and landless labour ever since the act began to be implemented.
For the Rajasthan government, doing away with the act makes even less sense. The law entitles state governments to receive 90 per cent of the expenditure from the Centre. In 2008-09, Rajasthan topped the country in person days of work generated, for which it received over Rs 6,200 crore from the Central government. Due to resistance in implementation, this figure has fallen to a third of that amount. Properly implemented, the MGNREGA would enable Rajasthan to receive at least
Rs 10,000 crore in 2014-15. To advocate a scheme and therefore allow the budget to be cut by the Central government at will is to harm the state and its people in fundamental ways.
According to reports, the Rajasthan government has proposed a set of anti-poor, anti-labour amendments in labour laws as well. It has been another arbitrary initiative, taken without consulting the affected people. Strangely, the state government does not have the jurisdiction to override Central laws in either case. Some wonder if these “suggestions” were asked for by Delhi to test the waters, gauge the opposition and begin to make the unpalatable acceptable.
As India faces a drought and the Union budget is presented, the Central government needs to make its long-term proposals on the MGNREGA public. It needs to make clear that under no circumstances will the demand-based legal entitlement be undermined, whether through amendments or budgetary constraints. The Rajasthan government in turn needs to get back to doing what it promised during the election — strengthen the law through improved implementation and accountability.
The BJP was voted to power in both the state and the Centre on a primary mandate of providing jobs and employment. This promise can hardly be met by undermining a law that guarantees work to almost a fifth of India’s rural households. Rural workers and the right to work movement will thwart this attack, which would take them back to the dark days of no work, no bargaining power and traumatic exploitation.
The writers are social activists based in rural Rajasthan