Ending destitution and distress

‘The government has taken steps to destroy MGNREGA, an act that gives purchasing power to the rural poor, following prejudicial contentions of Bharatiya Janata Party leaders’

October 25, 2014 02:36 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:46 pm IST

GRUELLING: “If those opposing the scheme visited a worksite, they would see men and women lifting approximately 1,500 kilos of mud in a day to earn a minimum wage.” Picture shows MGNREGA workers near Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. Photo: A. Muralitharan

GRUELLING: “If those opposing the scheme visited a worksite, they would see men and women lifting approximately 1,500 kilos of mud in a day to earn a minimum wage.” Picture shows MGNREGA workers near Tiruchi in Tamil Nadu. Photo: A. Muralitharan

It’s no secret that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. MGNREGA is perhaps the only law in the world which guarantees 100 days of wage employment a year to one member of a rural household at the minimum wage rate. With the sole exception of the late Gopinath Munde, who on becoming the Rural Development Minister had expressed his support to expand and strengthen the programme, other BJP leaders have expressed their contempt for it.

The latest in the list is Maneka Gandhi who termed it the “most expensive failure” of the United Progressive Alliance government and went on to make the rather bizarre statement that it was because of MGNREGA that the handloom, silk and carpet weaving industry in Varanasi has been destroyed. “Labour is impossible to get,” she said, because of MGNREGA work.

Have any of the BJP leaders opposing the scheme on equally specious grounds ever been to an MGNREGA worksite? If they had, they would have seen frail men and women digging and lifting approximately 1,500 to 2,000 kilos of mud in a single day to earn a minimum wage, the national average of which was just Rs.132 last year. If anyone opts for this work, it is not out of choice but distress.

Arbitrary funding priorities

In the eight blocks in Varanasi, the implementation of MGNREGA has been quite poor. Last year, on an average in each of the blocks, 2,500 households got only two and a half days of work in a month (using the State average of 31 days last year). Clearly, MGNREGA is not the cause for weavers’ distress although the relief it could have provided is absent.

The real problem today is that such prejudicial contentions of BJP leaders are increasingly followed by government steps to destroy MGNREGA.

This started with the reduction in budgetary allocations from already low levels. UPA-II had also cut down funds for MGNREGA from Rs.40,000 crore in the budgets of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 to just Rs.33,000 crore in the subsequent two budgets.

However the difference is that whereas the previous government kept it open-ended with a proviso to meet the additional demands of the States where required, the Narendra Modi regime has virtually capped the expenditure refusing legitimate demands of the States for more allocations on the basis of demand for work by the rural poor. Given that the basis of the legal guarantee of 100 days of work is demand-driven, imposing such a cap is clearly a violation of the law.

Ninety per cent of the cost of MGNREGA is borne by the Centre. This February, the mutually agreed labour budget was 227 crore person-days, slightly higher than the 2011-12 number of 219 crore person-days. In financial terms this translates into an expenditure of Rs.61,000 crore. In addition, the Centre still owes States Rs.3,000 crore from last year’s backlog.

But instead of revising its priorities in expenditures and ensuring funds for MGNREGA, the Modi government slashed the labour budget by more than 50 per cent, allocating just Rs.33,500 crore. In an unprecedented move, it then divided the amount among States on a “pro rata basis.” All States have suffered cuts in allocations, some more than others.

Take the case of Tripura, the best performing State in the country in the implementation of the scheme. Its record in provision of work has been double than that of the national average. The agreed labour budget for Tripura amounted to a central allocation of Rs.1,406.96 crore for this year. However, the projected amount was arbitrarily slashed to Rs.660 crore by the Centre. Moreover, till October 20, the Tripura government had received only Rs.180 crore of the indicated allocation. This is the lowest in the entire country. Gujarat received 76 per cent of its indicated allocation, Chhattisgarh received 82 per cent and Kerala received 46.58 per cent.

There were no criteria for releases, just the arbitrary use of power by the Ministry. It is only after strong objections and protests by the Tripura government that another Rs.193 crore was released. But the damage has already been done. The Tripura government had projected a creation of 2 crore person-days between April and September, but has managed to achieve the creation of only 1.08 crore person-days till now. This is a direct fallout of the cut in funds.

As a result, the benefits of work and income to thousands of households, the majority of them tribal communities, are being destroyed by the Central government. Moreover, the inadequate devolution of funds and the consequent reduction in workdays created in the first six months will set into motion a vicious cycle, since the low average workdays will in turn affect all subsequent allocations which are based on past performance.

Another negative change in the making is the decision to alter the material-labour ratio from the current 60:40 to 51:49, thus increasing the proportion of expenditure on materials. This has serious implications on the very character of the programme.

First, with the overall cut in funds, any change in material labour ratio, given the increased costs of creation of workdays, will drastically cut down days of work which are already low. Second, the current expenditure on materials is just 23 per cent, well below the permissible 40 per cent, so there is enough scope to increase the material component with an expanded list of permissible projects without changing the ratio. Third and critically, the increase in the ratio of materials will automatically mean the entry of contractors and machines in much larger numbers into the MGNREGA projects. This in turn will signify the conversion of MGNREGA from a work guarantee Act into a contractor’s commission guarantee Act.

The idea of development

The attack on MGNREGA should also be seen as a reflection of the BJP’s idea of “development,” which is a deep commitment to the trickle-down theory of growth. The UPA also subscribed to this theory which is why it took steps in its second term that weakened and diluted its own legislation.

The ideological underpinning of the present assault on MGNREGA is linked to the approach regarding the use of national resources. MGNREGA, however inadequate, makes a step in the right direction by: providing a share of national resources to create work opportunities in rural India thereby directly increasing the purchasing power of the rural poor; planning projects to meet requirements at the village or area level unlike planning to build infrastructure which primarily helps corporates; having the potential to support farming by small and marginal farmers and those belonging to adivasi and Dalit households; and preventing wages from coming down below the legal level, thus stopping, at least in theory, gross exploitation of rural labour through payment of dismal wages by various sections of the rural elite.

That is why the dilution of the Act has the backing of representatives of the rural elite — the landlords and big contractors — across political parties.

The implementation of MGNREGA requires serious improvement to increase the number of workdays to its full potential. Works permissible should be more closely linked with livelihoods and work such as fodder and fuel collection, the working of Self-Help Groups and animal husbandry. Non-payment of minimum wages and delayed wage payments have to be urgently addressed, and compensation arrears should be paid along with unemployment allowances. Of what use is the ‘Make in India’ slogan when the Indian mazdoor, whose hands labour to produce, lives in destitution and distress?

(Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau.)

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