West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu — states that are currently in assembly elections mode — have registered huge spurt in job numbers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act (MGNREGA).
West Bengal, where the Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee is fighting to retain power, saw a record 28.66 crore person-days of employment being generated under MGNREGA during the year ended March 31, 2016. This represented a 69 per cent jump over the figure for 2014-15.
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Assam under the Congress chief minister Tarun Gogoi, similarly, posted a 134 per cent increase in MGNREGA employment for 2015-16, though the 4.93 crore person-days of work created was lower than the state’s all-time-high of 7.51 crore achieved in 2008-09.
Tamil Nadu, too, witnessed a significant increase in total person-days to 36.61 crore, despite again being lower than the 40.81 crore for 2012-13. In fact, during the tenure of the current J Jayalalithaa-headed AIADMK government, Tamil Nadu has emerged as the country’s leading state in MGNREGA employment generation.
The fourth state going in for elections, Kerala, also showed higher MGNREGA job numbers in 2015-16. Rural development ministry officials, however, note that both Tamil Nadu and Kerala have a generally good record of MGNREGA implementation, which may not be related to elections per se. But this is clearly not the case in West Bengal and, to some extent Assam, where at least a part of the ramp up would have been attributable to the polls.
Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a social activist organisation, says that ruling parties are often most responsive towards MGNREGA in the run-up to elections. “It is not unusual to find states, even when faced with cash crunch due to non-release of funds from the Centre, putting in their own resources to take up works under MGNREGA,” he adds.
The centrally-sponsored MGNREGA, which was a flagship of the previous UPA regime, provides 100 days of guaranteed employment in a year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
In 2014-15, the first year of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, the programme generated a mere 166.21 crore person-days of employment, as against the preceding year’s 220.37 crore.
There was a revival of sorts, however, in the fiscal just ended, with 235.16 crore person-days generated — the highest since the 283.60 crore and 257.15 crore of 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively.
But even in 2015-16, states experiencing severe drought conditions have not reported increases in MGNREGA employment — considered by many as an effective instrument for combating loss of rural incomes — that can be termed significant.
While the number of person-days in Maharashtra has gone up over 2014-15, it is lower compared to in 2012-13, which was also a drought year. This, despite MGNREGA’s genesis going back to the Employment Guarantee Scheme that the Maharashtra government launched as an anti-drought initiative in 1972-73 – and which provided for round-the-year work in public projects on demand.
Strikingly, the 2015-16 data reveals 9,065 or nearly a third of the 28,539 gram panchayats in Maharashtra to have incurred “nil expenditure” under MGNREGA — the worst for any state. Even in the worst-affected Marathwada region covering eight districts — Aurangabad, Jalna, Beed, Osmanabad, Latur, Parbhani, Hingoli and Nanded – only 1.90 crore person-days of employment was generated in 2015-16, as opposed to 2.81 crore in 2012-13.
“It is tragic that a state responsible for the birth of MGNREGA has killed its very spirit,” points out Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan, a fledgling political outfit that is pursuing a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking better implementation of MGNREGA and other welfare legislations in drought-hit states.
Things aren’t different in Karnataka. In 2009-10, again a drought year, the state managed to create 20.03 crore person-days of work under MGNREGA. This plunged to 6.18 crore in 2012-13 and further to below six crore last year. Even other traditionally good performers such as Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana) and Madhya Pradesh — which generated 44.98 crore, 40.44 crore and 26.24 crore person-days in 2009-10 — have fallen behind relative to their own erstwhile levels. Even worse is Gujarat; the state has all through been a laggard as far MGNREGA goes.
In contrast to these are Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, which have taken over the No. 1 and No. 2 slots, and also states like
Tripura. Only five months back, Tripura CM Manik Sarkar staged a sit-in protest at Jantar Mantar in the national capital, demanding that the Modi government roll back its policy of curtailing funds for MGNREGA.
In the last fiscal, the north-eastern state created a record 5.39 crore person-days of employment under MGNREGA. Further, it provided an average 94.46 days of work per household, almost twice the all-India figure of 48.8 days and close to the 100 days entitlement under the programme.