In the media discussions on the novel coronavirus numbers and testing, on public health mismanagement, on the suffering of migrant workers and on the unplanned lockdown, one issue has missed the headlines — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Programme, better known by the acronym MGNREGA.
A prime minister who once, on the floor of Parliament, dismissed MGNREGA as a scheme for “digging holes” is today, banking on it to rescue distressed rural citizens. This realisation is belated, but worth it. MGNREGA is, perhaps, the world’s largest social welfare programme, with about 120 million beneficiaries. With unemployment figures at a 45-year high, and with the added economic destruction caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, MGNREGA numbers are set to rise.
Migrant workers (I’d prefer to call them guest workers) returning home to their villages are seeking work under MGNREGA. Since April 2020, 3.5 million new workers have enrolled under this programme. This is greater than the number of new workers in the previous year. It speaks volumes of the gravity of the situation.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, the BJP government at the Centre was attempting to weaken and dismantle MGNREGA. In 2015, the Prime Minister even disparaged it as a “living monument of failure”. Further, both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets reduced MGNREGA allocations in comparison to actual expenditure in the previous year.
From mechanising work that could have been undertaken by manual labour as part of MGNREGA, to not clearing the wage bills of state governments, the central government has done much to undermine the programme. In the financial year 2019-20, 95 per cent of the MGNREGA outlay had been spent by January, with two months still remaining: The ministry of rural development sought an additional Rs 20,000 crore. It was given only Rs 5,000 crore.
And now, suddenly, the Narendra Modi government has taken a U-turn. It claims to have bolstered MGNREGA. But, here again, the numbers hide more than they reveal. Take three examples: First, in March, the minimum daily wage was enhanced by Rs 20 to reach Rs 202. This is lower than the minimum wage in 31 states and union territories.
Second, the Centre makes claims of a Rs 2,000 increase in annual household income. This calculation presumes 100 days of work. Actually, MGNREGA has generated employment for only 45-50 days in the last few years. Third, the finance minister has announced Rs 40,000 crore extra for MGNREGA. However, Rs 11,500 crore of this is payment for previous dues. With the remainder, the Centre talks of generating 300 crore, or three billion person-days of work. But the April-May 2020 period shows that MGNREGA employment was less than half of what it was during the same period in 2019.
Such grandstanding is disappointing. But the fact is, common citizens in our country are facing a life and death situation. In the national interest, the Centre and the states should work together and we in the opposition must offer constructive suggestions.
On MGNREGA, there is a four-fold path that the BJP government needs to adopt. First, it should ensure that each registered worker receives the full 100 days of work. This is critical after the pandemic. Second, wages need to be further revised and linked to the rural consumer price index. The current MGNREGA wage of Rs 202 a day is 40-50 per cent lower than the average unskilled daily wage in India. An expert committee had suggested in 2019 that it be revised to Rs 375 a day.
Third, all wages need to be cleared within 15 days from the day work is done as stipulated in the Act. This is far from the norm on the ground. And fourth, the unemployment allowance period of 15 days should be extended to provide states and workers with some relief. The Centre should also increase its share of payments for raw materials to ease fiscal pressures on states. This is not the time to haggle.
The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal has been alive to the utility and efficacy of MGNREGA. For the past three years, the state has won the award for best implementation of the programme. Between 2011 and 2019, during the Trinamool years in office, the annual expenditure on MGNREGA has gone up 200 per cent. The annual generation of person-days has risen from 150 million to 330 million. In April 2020, Bengal featured in the top three states in terms of person-days of work.
It is ironic that while India celebrated Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in October 2019, the fate of an employment guarantee programme named after him hung in the balance. “Poverty,” Gandhi once said, “is the worst form of violence.” As things stand, MGNREGA is a key instrument to prevent violence and suffering in rural India in the aftermath of the novel coronavirus. The Centre must take note.
[This article appeared in The Indian Express | Thursday, June 11, 2020]