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Sonia Gandhi slams govt over NREGA cuts; ministers hit back

Sonia's submission, demanding adequate allocations to MGNREGA and ensuring payments within 15 days, and the counter by the treasury benches — that the Opposition was “trying to do politics with the scheme” — led to uproarious scenes in Lok Sabha during Zero Hour.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi speaks in Lok Sabha on Thursday. (PTI)

Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday tore into the government over budgetary cuts in allocation for MGNREGA, which she maintained is weakening the legal guarantee of timely payment and jobs.

Although it was a Zero Hour submission in Lok Sabha, to which the government usually does not respond, two Union ministers hit back, alleging that Sonia’s statement was far from the truth, and that even budgetary allocation remained unutilised under the Congress-led UPA.

Sonia’s submission, demanding adequate allocations to MGNREGA and ensuring payments within 15 days, and the counter by the treasury benches — that the Opposition was “trying to do politics with the scheme” — led to uproarious scenes in Lok Sabha during Zero Hour.

Sonia, who has raised multiple matters of public importance in the second half of the Budget session, said: “MGNREGA, which was ridiculed by several people a few years ago, has come in support to the government in providing timely help to crores of affected poor families during Covid and lockdown, and played a constructive role in saving the government. However, constant cuts are being made in budgetary allocation for the scheme.”

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Sonia maintained that the approach is “weakening the legal guarantee of timely payment and jobs”. She said: “This year’s MGNREGA budget is 35 per cent less than 2020, even when unemployment is rising continuously. Due to the cuts in budget, payment of workers gets delayed. The Supreme Court has called this a forced labour.”

Expressing concern over several states having negative balance in their accounts to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore, which has led to delays in payment to workers, Sonia said the states were told that their annual labour budget will not be approved unless they meet conditions related to social audit and appointment of Lokpal. “Social auditing is good..and social auditing by the Gram Sabhas cannot be compromised,” she said, adding that it cannot be made an excuse to create hurdles for the scheme.

“I request the Central government to allocate adequate funds for MGNREGA, ensure payment of workers within 15 days of work, and pay compensation in case of delay in payment of wages,” Sonia said.

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Union minister Giriraj Singh, who was in the House, made an intervention to say Sonia’s “allegations” are “far from the truth”. He said: “I want to respond to them one by one. The issue raised by the leader is far from the truth. The budgetary allocation for MGNREGA in 2013-14 (UPA years) was Rs 33,000 crore, whereas under Prime Minister Narendra Modi it had reached Rs 1.12 lakh crore. She should not try to show us the mirror.”

I&B Minister Anurag Thakur also joined the issue and said the Modi government has allocated Rs 1.12 lakh crore for MGNREGA. Lashing out at the Opposition for “politicising the issue”, Thakur said: “Until 2013-14, even allocated funds were not utilised. There were complaints even in the ministers’ constituencies. But Modi-ji’s government has provided more than Rs 1 lakh crore budget for this. Under the UPA, only corruption data used to come from the constituencies.”

Thakur said the Modi government has started geotagging and addressed this issue. “Today, MGNREGA workers get their money in their accounts with the click of a button,” he said.

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As Congress members protested Thakur’s intervention, which came after the Rural Development Minister’s response, Thakur said: “It is really strange. Opposition MPs have a problem with a minister responding to a submission, which shows that they just want to play politics with it.”

DMK MP C N Annadurai also demanded that wages under the job guarantee scheme should be increased.

Maintaining that the minister’s intervention made it clear that Sonia’s observations “touched a raw nerve” in the government, Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said: “She struck the right chord. The government was left in a tizzy. Otherwise why would three ministers, one after the other, get up to defend the government? During Zero Hour, ministers generally don’t reply. We raise so many issues during Zero Hour every day, but we never get an oral or written reply. (But) today three ministers rose to counter and rebut what Sonia Gandhi had said.”

Chowdhury said, “I can understand if the minister concerned gives a reply. But after Giriraj Singh, the Rural Development Minister who is in charge of MGNREGA, spoke, Anurag Thakur got up. He is the minister for Information and Broadcasting and Youth Affairs and Sports. And then Arjun Ram Meghwal…it shows there was weight and merit in Sonia Gandhi’s arguments. The government’s attitude was surprising. It shows it is dictatorial even inside the House.”

First published on: 01-04-2022 at 02:26:53 am
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