Even as it stares at unprecedented crop loss from back-to-back droughts followed by untimely rains/hailstorms, Maharashtra has seemingly given the short shrift to MGNREGA, which could have gone some way in mitigating the current crisis. And significantly, its potential has been least leveraged in Vidarbha, the region most prone to drought and home to 12,480 recorded farmer suicides from 2001 to 2014.
In 2014-15, the average number of workdays provided per household under MGNREGA — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act — was only 52.94 days, as against the guaranteed 100 days. Worse, in five districts of Vidarbha — Chandrapur (41.34), Wardha (45.52), Gadchiroli (47.63), Buldhana (49.71) and Bhandara (50.39) — the number of workdays is below even the state average, while only being marginally above in the remaining six districts of Akola (55.92), Gondia (56.42), Yavatmal (57.78), Washim (59.94), Nagpur (71.74) and Amravati (75.78).
Given that 75 per cent of Maharashtra’s below-poverty-line population comprises not agricultural labourers but small and marginal farmers tethered to their land, public policy experts are now asking why 100 days of guaranteed livelihood is not part of a focused strategy to counter crop loss, especially in the most vulnerable Vidarbha and Marathwada belt.
Describing the state’s agrarian crisis as “policy-induced”, Ashwani Kumar, chairperson of the Centre for Public Policy, Habitat & Human Development at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says it makes sense to give special focus of MGNREGA’s implementation in areas where monsoon failure or crash in crop prices lead to farmers committing suicide.
“Public works programmes can help reduce uncertainties over future household incomes. They may even encourage farmers to make investments on the farm, knowing they have access to a safety net during bad economic times,” he points out.
The proportion of households with MGNREGA job cards that were provided 100 days of employment in Maharashtra has grown only marginally in the last three financial years: 14 per cent in 2012-13, 11 per cent in 2013-14 and 15 per cent in 2014-15. This should have been much higher in a year of crop failures such as the last one, but was hardly so.
“The government seems clueless about using MGNREGA in a targeted way, to extend it to even 150 days of employment in drought prone blocks/talukas. In fact, the Act allows for more than 100 days,” Kumar notes. Andhra Pradesh is a good example of a state that often resorts to extending NREGA beyond 100 days. Besides, a decision was taken in February 2014 to raise MGNREGA work days from 100 to 150 in Maoist-affected districts and for tribal populations covered under the Forest Rights Act. “So places like Melghat, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur should have benefited, which is not the case,” he adds. According to NGOs, one reason for MGNREGA’s poor performance is inadequate demand for work. That, in turn, is also courtesy low awareness among farmers that the list of permissible works under MGNREGA now include agriculture and livestock-related activities such as composting, vermi-composting, liquid bio-manures, poultry and goat shelters and azola as cattle feed supplement.
“The current regime in Maharashtra has labeled MGNREGA a black spot and has instead given a big thrust to its new Jalyukta Shivar Yojana as a drought-proofing policy. It’s a pity it does not understand that the state’s original Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), on which MGNREGA is based, was a successful anti-drought programme in the 1970s,” says Kishore Tiwari of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti.
Also, he claims that the deepening of nullahs under the Jalyukta Shivar Yojana tries to replicate the “Shirpur model” of recharge using canal waters in ecologically different Vidarbha, which will not succeed.
Kumar, who is a former member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, says Vidarbha has suffered historically even when it came to implementation of EGS. The political clout of farmers and leaders in western Maharashtra resulted in sugarcane, fruits and vegetable-growing districts such as Ahmednagar, Nashik and Solapur benefitting immensely from the EGS.
The regional skew in implementing MGNREGA is a legacy of sorts; not a single district from Vidarbha figured in the top ten of EGS performers between 1977 and 1997. This was turned around partially in 2013-14, when Amravati managed to secure a NREGA district excellence award from the Ministry of Rural Development.
Despite MGNREGA’s rich possibilities, Kumar notes that the Maharashtra government has slashed allocations under it to Rs 800 crore in 2014-15. This compares with much larger allocations by neighbouring states such as Rajasthan (Rs 2,976 crore) or Madhya Pradesh (Rs 2,452 crore).