Lok Sabha Election 2019

Election talk in Karnataka steers clear of faltering rural schemes

Farmers and labourers, hit by drought and shortage of work, say neither PMFBY nor MNREGA has helped them.

Farmers and labourers, hit by drought and shortage of work, say neither PMFBY nor MNREGA has helped them.   | Photo Credit: File Photo

The effects of a long-drawn drought are apparent in the abandoned fields around Thalakku village in northern Chitradurga district. With loss of cultivation comes a loss of daily wage jobs. Even Challakere, which was once known for having hundreds of groundnut oil mills, now has barely a handful functioning ones.

“The only place for jobs is Bengaluru,” says Basanna, a ragi farmer. His companion, Mahantesh, says his investment of ₹20,000 on an acre of groundnut has come to nought now. “I have given up getting crop insurance. This investment will add to the loans in banks,” he says. Since morning, the duo has been waiting beside the village centre in the hope of getting daily wage work. On most days, they return empty-handed.

In the electoral discourse this poll season, rural distress seems to be a mere detail on the side. On paper, Mr. Basanna and his friends are covered under two Central schemes — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which assures wage through public works, and the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY), a crop insurance scheme. Both have made little impact here.

The villagers of Thalakku have MNREGA job cards but struggle to remember when they last did work under the scheme. Thippeswamy, a daily wage labourer, points to a “newly created” drain where marks consistent with the use of heavy machinery can be seen. “Contractors, who take villagers’ job cards, use machines for the job. A small cut is given in exchange. But it would be better for us if there were actual jobs with full pay,” he says.

MNREGA, a flagship scheme that yielded political dividends for the United Progressive Alliance in the 2009 general elections, has seemingly withered out in many villages as contractors and machines replace paid manual labour. MNREGA data shows that the demand for jobs has reduced by 15% since 2016-17 despite the drought having intensified.

What has also hit the scheme significantly in recent months is pending wages — over ₹1,200 crore is pending from the Centre, including ₹130 crore as labour wages. At Dindadahalli village in Davangere, 70-year-old Nagendrappa is yet to get the ₹4,800 owed top him for 20 days of labour. “I have given up following up with the bank. What is the point of working if they don’t pay immediately?” he asks.

At Budanatti village near Challakere, 220 workers have been owed ₹1.2 lakh cumulatively for three months now. “At every meeting we have asked for it, but the answer has been that the Centre has not released it,” says Eswarappa, the Panchayat Development Officer.

Delayed wages are gradually killing interest in the scheme, says Maruti Manpade, president of the Karnataka Prantha Raitha Sangha. “Because of this, middlemen are coming back to the scheme even in places where MNREGA was performing well... the NDA is killing the scheme, but even the Congress is not interested in making it an election issue.”

NDA’s scheme

In 2016, the National Democratic Alliance attempted to tackle agrarian distress with their own scheme — the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bhima Yojana, launched with much fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The scheme takes a minor premium from farmers (upwards of ₹300 an acre, depending on food crop) and assures them crop loss compensation. The catch: there would be compensation only if the entire village suffers crop loss.

“The bank had a camp to enrol and we stood in the queue despite the rain. We paid some ₹400 an acre,” says Nagendrappa, who grows maize on a 2.5-acre rain-fed field in Ignoor. The rains failed that year. “We didn’t get anything from [the scheme] and we stopped paying premium.”

In just two years, interest has dwindled, with enrolment falling by 41% in the State. “PMBSY has too many conditions to help farmers in distress. It is more for insurance companies,” Mr. Manpade says.

Political benefit

However, these schemes and rural distress remain out of the political narrative, despite Ministers from the State leading delegations to New Delhi to seek release of pending wages of MNREGA. In fact, Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy had noted in his budget that the State would look to start its own scheme considering the “failure” of the PMBSY.

“These failures, demonetisation, and GST on fertiliser and manure have taken some the shine off the Modi image. But it is not enough to counter the narratives of nationalism and patriotism that have brought the youth back to the BJP,” said a Congress strategist in Chitradurga.

For the BJP, the focus is on the Ujjwala scheme, under which gas cylinders have been distributed, and the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, under which household toilets have been constructed. “For instance, there are 21,000 beneficiaries of the Ujjwala scheme in Nelamangala. We are in touch with them and are sure this will translate to votes for the BJP,” said a party strategist for Chickballapur.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 1:02:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/election-talk-in-karnataka-steers-clear-of-faltering-rural-schemes/article26838006.ece

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