We want Prime Minister Narendra Modi to succeed in his national campaign to tackle the vast problems of the poor in Bharat. But his one-time contractor turned Union minister for rural development is succeeding in making his own prime minister look contradictory and indecisive to the nation and the world. The prime minister talks about constructing toilets and improving sanitation, opening bank accounts for every poor, excluded family, helping small and marginal farmers increase productivity, providing employment opportunities to the rural youth, women, handicapped and tribals in all the villages of Bharat.
Yet, under his very nose and blatantly without any conscience, the minister for rural development is undercutting the PM’s public statements by decimating, diluting and, indeed, destroying the largest rights-based employment guarantee statute in the world. It is a statute this country should be proud of, the only national programme of any depth that could make Modi’s dream of providing rural jobs a reality: the MGNREGA.
The rumour doing the rounds is that there is a directive from the prime minister’s office to cut it down from 643 districts benefiting 100 million households to 200 districts, on the grounds that the subsidy is being wasted and only the poor districts need to be covered. Rural Development Minister Nitin Gadkari, it would seem, is just a tool and a front. But we would like to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt.
When the Rs 34,000 crore (non-subsidy) MGNREGA budget for 2014-2015 is compared to the Rs 60,000 crore subsidy for fertilisers, the Rs 97,000 crore subsidy for petroleum and the additional Rs 60,000 crore subsidy allocated to state governments, it is peanuts. It is only 0.07 per cent of the GDP. It is equivalent to the cost of developing one video game (Destiny). The amount that the government is cribbing about spending on 300 million households all over the country is only 1 per cent of the amount spent on cat and dog food in America.
Sadly but systematically, this government is taking jobs away from the rural poor. It is now proposed that the original 60:40 labour to material ratio be changed to 51:49, which would benefit village contractors at the expense of real rural wages and livelihoods. If this is not a colossal anti-poor move, how else can it be explained? There is no justification. Only consider the impact.
One out of every three households (40 per cent of SC/ ST families) — in other words, 10 crore or 100 million people — has directly benefited in Bharat. That too when, on an average, a family has worked for only 45 days out of the 100 days of employment they should have got by right. If this government is to show to the nation and the world it is serious about providing jobs in rural areas, it should leave the MGNREGA alone.
There is an absurd idea being circulated by arm-chair economists that the subsidy should be stopped because the rural poor don’t work. They are lazy. They are getting a dole for just sitting at home. These people, who have never done a stroke of manual labour in their lives, have no idea what it is like to work for eight hours in the sun and go hungry because they can’t get even one square meal a day. The MGNREGA has given 100 million people who once had no hope or future a life and enabled them to work with dignity. What more could any government want?
It is an incredible machinery that took 10 years to put in place, and is responsible for constructing rural roads and thousands of toilets in schools, providing water for agriculture through the digging of hundreds of open wells, renovating traditional water bodies, opening 9.37 crore bank accounts, empowering women (that is, 55 per cent of the labour force), improving nutritional standards and arresting distress migration. There are in-built public hearing and social audit systems that have minimised waste and exposed corruption. In Andhra Pradesh, embezzled money has been recovered through social audits.
The Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (SAGY), announced recently by the prime minister, is supposed to revive a jaded Nehruvian “innovation” from the 1950s — model villages. It is just about right for someone like Anna Hazare to be its first unofficial chairman, thus co-opting the ageing, misplaced Gandhian looking for causes and publicity into the system. Tragically, it has taken the country’s so-called progressive thinking on development back by five decades, reminding us of Nilokheri in Haryana in the 1960s and Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi of the 1990s. The fact that the model was not adopted by people in adjoining villages speaks volumes. Development is about the people making their own choices from below, not the government (read contractor, bureaucrat and politician) making it for them from above.
It is not beyond the power and capability of this government to double the MGNREGA budget. Where could the money come from? Try the nationalised banks, where, at the end of 2013, crores remained frozen in non-performing loans. With Subrata Roy of Sahara India Pariwar fame being sent to jail in March 2014, a precedent has been set. What is to stop the ministry of banking from approaching the Supreme Court to recover the money en masse or have the defaulters go to jail? Meanwhile, there have been hundreds of suicides among the rural poor who were unable to repay loans. Work through the MGNREGA will provide them with more means and a second chance to repay their loans.
Is it too much to ask that Prime Minister Modi show some political courage and statesmanship, and be the spokesman for the poor in Bharat? Imagine expanding the MGNREGA and improving the quality of life of 300 million people. It is equivalent to the cost of developing two video games in America.
The writer is founder of Barefoot College, Tilonia