Rural India’s lifeline missing from Budget 2021 speech

Allocations for MGNREGA scheme stood at ₹73,000 crore in 2021-22, higher than the budget estimates for the previous year, but lower than the revised estimates.

Updated - February 02, 2021 12:13 am IST

Published - February 01, 2021 11:03 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Hard at work: Workers engaged in desilting a dry pond under the MGNREGA scheme in Haryana.

Hard at work: Workers engaged in desilting a dry pond under the MGNREGA scheme in Haryana.

The scheme that has been described as the lifeline of rural India during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown was completely missing from the Finance Minister’s Budget speech on Monday.

Unmentioned in the speech, the Budget documents showed that the allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme stood at ₹73,000 crore in 2021-22, higher than the budget estimates for the previous year, but lower than the revised estimates. Activists supporting MGNREGA workers warned that rural distress provoked by the pandemic was still continuing, and would require additional funding for the rural jobs scheme.

The importance of MGNREGA this year can be seen from the fact that the revised expenditure estimates for the demand-driven scheme stand at ₹1.11 lakh crore in 2020-21, sharply higher than the budget estimates of just ₹61,500 crore.

Faced with a mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities back to their villages during the lockdown, the Centre added a substantial extra allocation as part of COVID-19 relief to ensure that some employment could be provided to this newly jobless population.

The 2021-22 allocation, however, returns MGNREGA funding to the levels of actual expenditure in 2019-20, indicating that the Centre feels the crisis is over.

“Considering the unemployment scenario in rural India, which was at 9% even in December 2020, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, it is inexcusable that the Finance Minister’s speech did not have a single mention of MGNREGS,” said Hannan Mollah, general secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha.

“The Budget was a good opportunity for the government to raise the number of days of employment through MGNREGS to 150 days,” he added.

“This undermines the NREGA and shows utter disdain for one of the most important programmes that provided a modicum of protection to the rural poor. The government has shown neither commitment to nor an understanding of the situation of those who suffered most through the pandemic,” said Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan activist Nikhil Dey.

“In fact, all social sector allocations remain roughly at around pre-COVID levels, whereas there is a desperate need for enhanced allocations for education, health, employment, food security and social security,” he added.

The budgetary allocations for pensions for senior citizens, widows and the disabled in the coming year have been held at the exact same level as the original budget estimates during 2020-21.

The actual expenditure on these schemes was much higher owing to the additional pension amounts distributed as part of the COVID-19 relief package.

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