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 continued…