THE BUDGET for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the coming fiscal has been fixed at Rs 60,000 crore, lower than the total expenditure of Rs 61,084 crore (Revised Estimate) for 2018-19.
Activists say the lower provision does not augur well for the scheme, which is already beset by a near stagnation in wages. In fact, following last year’s nominal wage hike of 2.9 per cent, the MGNREGA wages in 28 of the 36 states and union territories fell way below their corresponding minimum wages. While MGNREGA is technically a demand-driven scheme and some fund infusion is done later in the year, the lack of substantial allocation in the BE, it is feared, could push down wages even further when annual revisions happen in April.
In April 2018, MGNREGA workers had the worst wage revision in the scheme’s history, with 10 states getting no hike and another five states seeing an insignificant wage hike of Rs 2 per day. Launched in 2006-07, MGNREGA was the UPA government’s flagship social security scheme. The Act guarantees 100 days of wage employment annually to any rural household whose members volunteer to do unskilled manual work and 150 days in times of extreme rural distress caused by loss of farm incomes owing to drought or floods.
While PM Narendra Modi had initially dismissed the scheme as the “living monument” of the Congress’s failure to tackle poverty, the NDA government did not dispense with it, especially with the country facing back-to-back droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The demand for MGNREGA works also rose in the period after demonetisation, with regular employment opportunities drying up due to closure of many MSME enterprises. The person-days of employment generated under the scheme rose from 166.21 crore in 2014-15, the first year of this government, to 235.15, 235.65 and 234.12 crore during the following three fiscals. In the current fiscal so far, 211.28 crore man-days have been generated.
Swaraj India chief Yogendra Yadav said the NDA government has systemically squeezed MGNREGA while claiming it has increased the Budget. “In nominal terms, of course, it will go up every year. The real question is has it gone up in real terms or in terms of the person days of work provided?” he said.