Retaining MGNREGA’s core

There is a pithy saying in Hindi that the elephant has two sets of teeth, one for show and the other to eat. This seems an apt description of the approach of the Narendra Modi government towards the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For public consumption the Finance Minister announces in his Budget that he has allocated the highest amount of funds for the implementation of the law, but in reality, States are being starved of funds. At the end of the financial year 2015-2016, an unprecedented Rs.12,000 crore was owed to the States, of which Rs.7,983 crore was owed to workers, the delays in wage payment stretching up to six months in some cases. Most shockingly Rs.2,723 crore was owed to workers in drought-hit States, the most vulnerable and desperate for livelihood.

An informalised approach

Now fresh evidence is available that the Central government is adopting opaque methods to dilute the law. There is a clear dichotomy in what the government is telling the Supreme Court in an ongoing petition on the implementation of MGNREGA and what it is telling the States. A platform on WhatsApp called ENCORE (or Enabling Communication on Rural Empowerment) run by the Joint Secretary of the Rural Development Ministry has been formed with around 300 officers from States, charged with the responsibility of MGNREGA. Even though this is run by an individual officer, it is clearly official policy that is being reflected and therefore must be considered authorised communication by the Ministry. This is an instant method of communication which may be useful to send important information maybe of an urgent nature to the States.

Brinda Karat

The problem arises on two counts. It is a procedure which bypasses the more transparent one of issuing official instructions through Ministry orders which are on record, on file, making the issuing authority accountable. Second, such communications are not accessible to the public though their content might have a direct impact on people. Third, they can easily be deleted by the administrator of the group. The Right to Information has proved to be a very effective instrument to glean information from governments on the functioning of MGNREGA. But there are no set procedures that WhatsApp messages from a Central government official to the State government can be accessed under the Right to Information Act. So whereas the WhatsApp messages have the stamp of authority emanating from a senior official in the Rural Development Ministry in charge of the implementation of MGNREGA, the aspect of accountability and transparency gets eliminated.

Court cracks the whip

This development needs to be seen in the context of the Supreme Court judgment in May this year on a petition moved by the Swaraj Abhiyan on a series of issues related to agrarian distress and in this particular case on the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. The judgment read: “The Government of India is directed to release to the State Governments adequate funds under the scheme in a timely manner so that the workforce is paid its wages well in time. It is regrettable that the pending wage bill for 2015-2016 was cleared during the pendency of the petition. The Government of India must shape up in this regard.” The court further indicted the Central government on the count of late wage payments with the scathing comment that it “had thrown social justice to the winds”. It considered delayed wage payments “a constitutional breach”.

The government was forced to release funds in June, bringing huge relief to the workers whose dues were cleared. In addition, because of the monitoring by the Supreme Court, the Central government has had to release funds to the States for projects under the law.

As a result, around 85 per cent of the funds budgeted for the year have already been released in the first five months. This reflects also the high demand for work. In the background of the devastating drought and widespread agrarian distress, MGNREGA is literally a lifeline for millions who have no other means of survival because of the lack of work in the countryside. The number of person-days generated in the first four months of the year is 89 crore person-days, the highest since 2012-2013.

But while this is a positive development, it also means that just around 15 per cent funds are available for the remaining seven months. Already, according to information available on the website of the Ministry, nine States have a negative balance, meaning thereby that they do not have the funds either to pay wages or to plan and implement projects based on the demand. The lean season for agricultural work that sees a spike in the demand for work under MGNREGA is usually between January to April. What is going to happen then? Will the funds be made available by the Central government?

The funds squeeze

The concern is because the Central government has been wilfully cutting down on the funds available to MGNREGA. Looked at as a percentage of GDP, the budgetary allocations have come down from 0.36 in 2012-2013 to 0.26 in 2016-2017. The government has tried several methods to cut down on the demand and the requirements of the States. The projected annual demand of the State and the equivalent amount of funds required — known as the labour budget — is finally decided by the Central government. The first downscaling happens here. On an average the Centre has cut the States’ requirement by about 30 per cent. This has serious repercussions on workers. The situation got so bad that the Chief Minister of the best performing State, Tripura, had to sit on an unprecedented hunger strike in Delhi in 2014 to demand adequate funds. In the present situation, with the Supreme Court monitoring the issue, the Central government cannot be quite so blatant.

It has assured the court that there is no formal or informal cap on the funds. It is here that the WhatsApp messages from the Centre should be taken as an indicator of the government strategy to dilute the provisions of MGNREGA.

A message on the ENCORE platform says that “to resort to logic that it is a demand driven programme and whatever is asked for will be given, does not cut much ice now”. Cut ice with whom? The Supreme Court which had accepted the assurance at face value? Another WhatsApp message reads, “Wage employment, with one point agenda of registering demand and responding to it is no longer the core concern.” And further, “we ought to desist from campaigns for enlisting demand and indulging in the mad race of more and more person day generation”.

Hollowing out the core?

The Supreme Court itself had quoted from the MGNREGA to point out the “core”, namely “An Act to provide for the enhancement of livelihood security of the rural households by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do manual work…” Yet through WhatsApp the same officer, winning praise from the court for “being well versed on the subject”, contradicts the provisions of the act itself.

As far as the creation of person-days is concerned the court had directed “both the State Government and the Government of India… to make all efforts to encourage needy persons to come forward and take advantage of the scheme. A success rate below 50 per cent is nothing to be proud of.” But here the Ministry is referring to it as a “mad race” to create workdays.

A most unique feature of the MGNREGA is its universal character. It is not a “targeted” programme as many of the other social sector schemes are. The rationale is that only those who cannot find better alternatives of employment will opt to work in MGNREGA. It is not a charitable enterprise. It is extremely hard work under very difficult work conditions. The work which is piece rated is linked to such high productivity norms that it is almost impossible for a worker to earn the full minimum wage. Anyone who has even a remote idea of a MGNREGA worksite knows that, more so in a period of drought where income from agriculture has literally dried up, even farmers survive by their work in MGNREGA.

End this doublespeak

Under Mr. Modi, the government has tried to change the nature of the law from being universal to targeted by first promoting the idea that work should be made available only in the most backward districts identified jointly by the Central and State governments. This was strongly opposed by many State governments as an encroachment on the law. Now the Ministry through the WhatsApp group is pushing for enrolling only the poorer sections. The message informs that it is the Central government that is going to identify such families; “this is to assist you in gap assessment .. a targeted approach.”

There are many other such examples of how the Ministry is saying something to the Supreme Court and directing officers in the State government to do the opposite. This is all part of the skewered policies of the pro-corporate Modi government. Bailouts for the rich, for whom unlimited subsidies in the form of unrepaid bank loans of over Rs.8 lakh crore or tax concessions of over Rs.5 lakh crore in a single year are easily handed out. But when it comes to the rights of the working people to national resources, and to the implementation of a law unanimously adopted by Parliament, there are no funds available.

Workers do not want an ENCORE of the anti-MGNREGA policies they have been subjected to by this government. In spite of all its weaknesses, this law is still a lifeline for crores of rural families.

Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 11:36:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Retaining-MGNREGA%E2%80%99s-core/article14628684.ece

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