From Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public barbs against its being a “living proof” of 60 years of Congress misrule, to a proposal now for extending the annual work entitlement to 150 days in drought-affected areas, the BJP-led government’s disposition towards the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) has seemingly undergone a marked change in recent months.
The virtual U-turn is largely seen as a response to the prospect of a second consecutive year of monsoon failure. For a government already battling criticism over its “anti-farmer” land acquisition ordinance, aggravation of rural distress on account of back-to-back droughts — last witnessed in 1986-87 and, before that, in 1965-66 — could prove politically costly, more so in the run-up to the upcoming Bihar Assembly polls.
The rural development ministry, which oversees the MGNREGA introduced by the previous UPA regime in 2006, has moved a Cabinet note to increase the number of promised work-days under the scheme to 150 in areas declared to be drought-affected by the respective state governments. Currently, MGNREGA provides 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a year to every rural household.
In 2014-15, the total person-days of employment generated under MGNREGA plummeted to 155.77 crore, from 220.36 crore and 230.48 crore in the preceding two years. The average days of employment provided per household, too, fell to 40.01 from 45.97 in 2013-14 and 46.20 in 2012-13. This was despite 2014-15 being a drought year similar to 2009-10, which had recorded as many as 283.59 crore of person-days employment and almost 54 days of work per household (see chart).
The above performance — the worst since MGNREGA’s inception — was viewed as a reflection of the current government’s lack of enthusiasm for a programme synonymous with the Congress-led UPA dispensation.
In fact, Nitin Gadkari, who took over as rural development minister in the new government, slammed the scheme in an internal ministry note last October, saying how it had been reduced to “yet another government programme exploited for pure partisan purpose”. Lashing out at a “network of vested interests”, the note claimed that MGNREGA was being presented as successful mainly by “participating agencies and individuals” seeking “personal benefit” and “milking it to their advantage”.
Under Gadkari, the ministry even proposed a reduction in the wage-material ratio in MGNREGA work expenditures from the existing 60:40 to 51:49. Besides, an exercise was initiated to identify 2,500 backward blocks in the country where the scheme could receive extra focus. Critics were quick to allege that the move was just a smokescreen to restrict MGNREGA’s active implementation, while undermining its basic universal demand-driven character.
The ultimate indication of the government’s thinking came from Modi himself. In February, replying to the motion of thanks to the President’s address in the Lok Sabha, the prime minister said he would never shut down MGNREGA, as it was a “living proof” of successive Congress governments’ failures, forcing the poor “to continue to dig holes in the ground even after 60 years of Independence”.
But the spectre of drought has led to a perceptible change in the past few months. Ministry officials admit to the government coming to realise MGNREGA’s value in mitigating distress situations and providing a basic minimum level of sustenance to the rural poor. The move to increase the number of promised work-days in drought-hit areas is only part of the larger acknowledgement that the scheme cannot be ignored. The murmurs about amending the wage-material ratio, too, have suddenly stopped. The Cabinet Secretary recently held a meeting to emphasise MGNREGA’s importance in the context of drought for construction of structures contributing to better water conservation.
The Modi government has also launched steps to improve the scheme’s implementation through more regular monitoring and scientific planning of works. MGNREGA’s biggest weakness — poor quality of assets — is being sought to be corrected by introducing systems for measuring outcomes of works based on defined physical and financial parameters. The problem of delays in wage payments is, likewise, being addressed via mobile monitoring systems and SMS alerts to defaulting field personnel.
The other significant step is in streamlining fund flows. Erratic release of funds, making it difficult to take up works on the ground, was a major factor behind MGNREGA’s poor performance in 2014-15. For 2015-16, Finance minister Arun Jaitley has provided Rs 34,699 crore — a marginal increase over last year’s Rs 34,000 crore — while promising to allocate another Rs 5,000 crore if the need arises. But equally important, out of the budgeted Rs 34,699 crore, around Rs 19,000 crore — over half — has already been released to the states. All these, officials say, point at the government’s keenness to not just continue with MGNREGA, but also iron out operational creases for making it a more effective rural intervention programme.
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