The Central Government has forgotten that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee ACT is an employment generation programme and not merely a rural asset generation scheme.
The idea of MGNREGA was conceived, based on the fact that the planning and implementation of the schemes will be done in a decentralized manner, which will honor the local and traditional knowledge and decision making. However in the last twelve years MGNREGA has seen strong centralized bureaucratic control over the programme which has demolished the spirit of employment guarantee and the idea of a demand based allocation of work.
MGNREGS today has become everything, which it was suppose to challenge and rectify. The exploitation of workers, non dignified wages, contractor based delivery have become some of the common features of MGNREGA. The great Indian bureaucracy has again turned a revolutionary programme into a failed dream. The over centralization and administrative control over implementation and misinterpretations of the law by the administrators, have been the primary reasons why NREGA could not give out, what it was suppose to deliver. However, the programme still is a lifeline for crores of rural households but it could never reach it’s true potential. In true sense, MGNREGS as a programme hasn’t evolved since it’s inception and an ACT which was suppose to transform the scenario of rural jobs has now become an agonizing compulsion for the workers across the nation. The need and benefits of rural employment guarantee is unquestionable but the implementing mechanisms and policy inertia has kept the programme at stagnation.
MGNREGA in it’s current form is seen as an asset creation machine which considers the workers as tools for generation of assets. The Ministry of Rural Development presently has little focus on worker’s dignity and well being and thus, contractor based service delivery, which is common in rural job schemes can be observed everywhere despite the fact that employment guarantee ACT completely eradicates the idea of contractors in the MGNREG schemes. The wages and benefits of the workers are non-lucrative and monitoring in terms of preserving worker’s rights are negligible. Disinterest among workers further paved way for the contractors and middle men to take control which resulted in heavy leakages.
Asset generation focus in an employment guarantee programme further has an implication on the budget allocations. Too much asset focus has resulted in state wise targets for assets and thereby having limited allocation of funds based on number of targeted assets. This has huge implication on ground. The MGNREGA budget allocation has always been inadequate to meet the needs of workers. While the budget allocations should be made based on the decentralized labour budget planning in the Gram Sabhas and number of job card holding households, the allocation nowadays are being done based on asset generation plans of the government. The idea of MGNREGA was also to provide additional employment of 100 days to people apart from the existing jobs available in the rural schemes. In the present scenario MGNREGA has been integrated with a whole lot of other existing rural asset schemes such construction of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna, Anganwadi centres and toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission, which reduces the scope of additional income. Also, these programmes have a contractor or owner driven implementation process wherein contractors or the owners themselves supervise the schemes, causing regular violation of the MGNREGA provisions.
The MGNREGA wages are ridiculously low and in most states it is even lower than the state’s agricultural minimum wage. While, this itself is a blatant violation of the Law, the constant wage delays in MGNREGA has put workers into more trouble. The centralized payments systems have further added more insult to the injury as people have to now wait for their rightful wages for a long long time due to central delays in release of funds.
The Ministry of Rural Development, for the past couple of years have been constantly boasting up about the NREGA budget allocations and have been terming the allocations as highest ever. Not only the ministry has terribly miscalculated the budget, it has also ignored the inflation adjustments and the yearly increase in the number of job cards while exultantly announcing the allocations as highest ever. In real terms the budget has only reduced in the past few years as the funds for a certain financial year include a huge pending liability of the previous year. As a result of the inadequate allocations, every year funds get dried up halfway into the year and thus causing tremendous stress on the workers and joblessness at ground. Joblessness in the peak working seasons cause huge number of people migrating to towns.
In an employment guarantee programme the claims of highest ever allocation does not hold any value, if it is insufficient to meet the needs of the workers. Adequacy of funds is what is important to meet the current demand in the nation and claims of highest ever allocations does not really change the abysmal situation on ground. The central government should now stop bragging about the funds and work on providing sufficient allocations and timely release of funds to states.
While, several ground surveys show that MGNREGA is not functioning properly, the central government’s repeated claims of MGNREGA running successfully, raise questions on the credibility and intentions of this government. Furthermore, it is more derisive that the central government has been making these claims on the basis of their official Management Information system(MIS), authenticity of which is already questioned on various occasions and in different platforms. It has been proved on multiple occasions that reports shown on the MIS vary distinctly from the ground realities.
The larger issues of inadequate allocations, centralized payments and delays in wages have destroyed MGNREGA which was already suffering from multiple local issues and malpractices. Now the target based asset focus in MGNREGA is further damaging the essence of employment guarantee. The irony is that the quality of assets too haven’t improved and one can find poor quality and incomplete MGNREGA assets across the nation. In absence of a robust monitoring and grievance redress strategy, the condition of the programme can never be revived. The ministry has always been prompt in responding to the critics but highest officials never respond to the ground issues. While the workers across the nation demand higher wages, increase in work days and enhanced benefits, the officials keep their mouth shut.
The central government have allocated Rs.60000 crores for MGNREGA for 2019-20. The total budget for 2018-19 was Rs. 61084 crores. While independent activists, researchers and organizations have repeatedly claimed with data that MGNREGA cannot function properly with anything less than Rs.88000crores, this reduction in the budget has no logical explanation.
The world’s largest rural job scheme is going through a deep crisis. In the times when frequent reports of starvation deaths have shaken the nation, the rural development minister and the MGNREGA officials at the centre cannot shun from their responsibilities. With the general elections round the corner, BJP government needs to understand that 13crores job card holding families will be closely watching their next moves.
Debmalya Nandy Is a social Worker