For a scheme meant to be used by the poorest of the poor in their leanest times, it is unconscionable that the government owes Rs.3,200 crore to beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Yet that is exactly where matters have reached with the ten-year-old scheme, >a fact the Supreme Court took notice of earlier this week. The scheme was launched by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its first term and delays in wage payments preceded the change in government, but matters have come to a head over the last year, resulting in a decline in the number of people participating. The number of households that got the legally guaranteed 100 days of work fell from 51.73 lakh in 2012-13 to 46.73 lakh in 2013-14 (under the UPA), and then dipped sharply to 23.24 lakh in 2014-15 (under the NDA). Funds sanctioned for the scheme show a similar steep decline under the NDA government, from Rs.27,484 crore in 2013-14 to Rs.17,074 crore in 2014-15. Research and news reports suggest that > delays in wage payments are turning workers away from the scheme and towards more exploitative forms of work that might require them to leave their States, but where payment is guaranteed each week. Institutional mechanisms written into the scheme, including a social audit system, have been neglected, and wages have not kept pace with inflation.
There is now a wealth of evidence of the anti-poverty capacities of the MGNREGS. Perhaps the most rigorous came from the >India Human Development Survey, which found that 14 million people escaped falling into poverty on account of it. Yet the incoming NDA government did little to hide its disdain for a scheme that has been lauded by governments, research organisations and multilateral lenders worldwide as a model anti-poverty measure worth emulating. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech to Parliament in February, said he would keep the scheme “as a monument to the Congress’s failure”, he made it clear that the prime value of the scheme to his party was as a political punchline. As the country faced down its second successive drought this year, that disdain was momentarily put aside as the > government offered 50 extra days of work under the MGNREGS in drought-hit areas , realising that the scheme’s effectiveness in lean agricultural seasons is proven. But without the active political will that is the hallmark of other schemes launched by the NDA government, the message has reached the ground: money will come late or not at all because this scheme is not priority. The government must put petty politics aside and fully commit to a scheme that is a proven success.