New Delhi : From Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling it a “living monument” to the failure of post-Independence Congress regimes in tackling poverty, to the finance minister Arun Jaitley taking credit for the highest-ever allocation of Rs 48,000 crore towards the scheme in the 2017-18 Union Budget, the ruling National Democratic Alliance’s take on MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme) has seen a near about-turn in the past two years.
The current government, many agree, has made some genuine attempts at improving transparency and streamlining implementation of the scheme. That includes geo-tagging of all assets built using MGNREGA monies and putting these in the public domain. Already, one crore out of the 2.8 crore-plus assets — water conservation and harvesting structures, roadside plantations, livestock shelters, and various other community/individual-level works — created since the programme’s inception in 2006-07 have been geo-tagged. Employment generation, too, has recovered from a low of 166.21 crore persondays in 2014-15 to over 235 crore in each of the last two fiscals. Also, 93 per cent of wage payments in 2016-17 were directly credited into the accounts of beneficiaries, whose Aadhaar unique identification numbers have been seeded into the MGNREGA MIS database. This has reduced the scope for diversion/leakages inherent in cash payments. The proportion of wage payments made within the stipulated 15-day period after closure of muster rolls has, likewise, gone up from below 27 per cent to almost 44 per cent in the last two years.
Yet, critics allege that MGNREGA’s essential character — as a demand-driven social security scheme guaranteeing 100 days of wage employment in a year to any rural household whose members volunteer to do unskilled manual work — has been steadily undermined in recent years. Out of the 5.11 crore households provided work under the scheme last fiscal, not even 40 lakh (7.8 per cent) completed 100 days of wage employment. The average days of employment provided per household was just under 46. Further, the MGNREGA wages in a majority of states were below the minimum levels for unskilled agricultural workers fixed by their respective governments.
“The problem is mainly of underfunding. The Act says that where and when there is demand for MGNREGA work, it must be provided. But underfunding of the scheme has suppressed the demand on the ground, as wage payments aren’t made on time and local authorities (gram panchayats) hesitate to take up works,” notes Jayati Ghosh, a development economist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University here.
The Rs 48,000-crore budget for MGNREGA in 2017-18, in fact, includes pending liabilities from last year, estimated at Rs 10,778 crore. Moreover, the labour budget approved for the current financial year is for only 215.5 crore person-days of employment, against the demand of 288 crore person-days made by state governments. Taking an average
per person-day cost of Rs 240 — covering wages as well as material and administrative expenses — the fund requirement based on the states’ demand would be Rs 69,120 crore. “If, to that, you add the pending liability of Rs 10,778 crore for 2016-17, the total requirement comes to Rs 79,898 crore,” points out Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an activist NGO.
Officials from the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), however, claim that the approved labour budget is a “realistic and pragmatic assessment”. The 215.5 crore person-days figure has been arrived at by taking into account past performance of individual states in implementing MGNREGA, levels of deprivation and number of households dependent on manual casual labour. Moreover, there is “nothing sacrosanct” about the approved labour budget. “It can be increased later and we could ask for more money from the Finance Ministry in the supplementary demand for grants, if necessary,” they add. Significantly, of the total Rs 23,000 crore of additional money that the MoRD had sought in last year’s supplementary demands, only Rs 9,000 crore was given.
The finance ministry has also refused to accept the report of a committee set up by the MoRD for recommending revision in MGNREGA wages. “We had said that MGNREGA workers should be paid at least the minimum wages fixed in states. We also suggested the inflation rate adjustment for annual wage revision to be done using the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) for Rural, which has 2011-12 as the base year. The existing practice of indexation using the CPI for Agricultural Labourers should be done away with, as it is based on an out-dated consumption basket of 1983,” says S Mahendra Dev, vice-chancellor of the Mumbai-based Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, who headed the panel.
For 2017-18, the Centre has allowed an average MGNREGA wage increase of just 2.7 per cent, the lowest-ever in the programme’s ten-year history. In five states — Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — the daily hike is a paltry Rs 1. That works out to an annual increment of Rs 100, even if someone were to be provided employment for the entire guaranteed 100 days. Furthermore, while the Bihar government may have raised its minimum daily wage for agricultural labourers from Rs 197 in 2016 to Rs 232 in 2017, the corresponding MGNREGA wage increase for the state has been from Rs 167 to just Rs 168.
Activists also question the calculation of compensation in case of wage payment delays beyond 15 days. The MGNREGA rules require workers to be compensated at the rate of 0.05 per cent of pending wages for each day’s delay. But according to
Ankita Agarwal, an independent researcher working in Jharkhand, the Centre allows the nodal district-level functionary concerned to use his discretion to reject compensation amounts, even when automatically computed by the MGNREGA MIS. The compensation itself is, moreover, only for only delays till the signing of fund transfer orders (FTO). “The long procedural delays, from the time FTOs are signed to the actual crediting of wages to workers’ accounts, is not part of the calculated compensation,” she contends.
The MoRD officials quoted earlier admit to the above flaws, but state that “our priority right now is to reduce delays in wage payments”. Extending compensation for the period beyond FTO signing “will be the next step”.
Source: The Indian Express