Comment

Utilise MGNREGA to the fullest capacity

The scheme should not be diluted in the name of the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan

The role of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as a lifeline for the working poor in rural India has been proved once again with the experience of the lockdown. In April and part of May, it was the absence of MGNREGA which accentuated rural distress. The Central government revised lockdown guidelines to allow MGNREGA work only from April 20, nearly a month after the nationwide lockdown was imposed, and released funds for it belatedly.

But once the money reached the States, the results are evident. Whereas the number of households who got work in April 2020 was the lowest in several years at 95 lakh, in May the number went up to 3.05 crore. Till the third week of June, 2.84 crore households had got work, much higher when compared to the same months last year. With an average 23 days of work and a daily wage of ₹200, households who got work earned an average of ₹1,500 a month. Even though this is meagre, it shows the potential of MGNREGA to bring work and relief, provided it is further expanded.

Coronavirus lockdown | Only 30 lakh found MGNREGA work in April

The Central government released ₹38,000 crore for MGNREGA work, of which 70% has already been utilised. With the return of migrant workers to their home States and with substantial numbers having completed the quarantine period, the demand for work is bound to increase. The remaining ₹8,000 crore fund available to the States is clearly insufficient. It is therefore essential for the Central government to release the second tranche without delay.

Work provided to few

Even in these months where there has been a welcome increase in workers who got work, it is extremely disturbing that as many as 1.82 crore workers who demanded work were turned back. According to figures available on the Ministry’s website, in this fiscal year, 8.07 crore workers demanded work, but work was provided only to 6.25 crore workers. Recently we heard the Prime Minister and the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister hardsell the record of employment provision in the State claiming that one crore jobs had been provided in a single day. This is certainly a novel interpretation of statistics. What is the nature of the work? Are they permanent jobs? Are they one-day jobs such as work on MGNREGA sites can be? In U.P., over one crore workers had applied for work under MGNREGA, but more than one third of them were turned back.

Similarly in Bihar, which also has a large number of returning migrant workers, 12 lakh workers of the 41 lakh workers who applied were turned back. In spite of a legal provision of unemployment allowance not a single rupee in compensation has been paid. Now that the monsoons have set in, this issue becomes all the more relevant. During the rainy season even though demand is high, work provision is low. It is therefore essential for the Central government to ensure that States are provided with the funds to pay unemployment allowance to all workers demanding work.

Also read | Scale up MGNREGA during COVID-19 crisis: Congress

In this context of the need to strengthen MGNREGA, the announcement of the Central government’s “new” scheme, the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan, to provide work to migrant workers in 116 selected districts, raises several questions. First, what is the criteria for selection? Why, for example, should the States of West Bengal and Chhattisgarh be omitted when reverse migration is particularly high in these States? Of the ₹4,794 crore spent between June 20 and June 28, Bihar received more than 50% of the fund. As noted earlier, Bihar has had a poor record of implementation of MGNREGA. The Bihar elections are scheduled for later this year. It will be a terrible travesty of justice if this scheme is designed to serve a narrow political purpose.

Second, according to the list of 25 kinds of work available under this “scheme” it is clear that almost every single one of them is already covered under the convergence programmes of MGNREGA. What is the new “skill mapping” required for this since this work is already covered under MGNREGA? The nature of the work is manual work, mainly construction and earth work, including work to lay cables, ostensibly to take Internet connections to rural areas. It is unstated but clear that this will benefit private telecom companies.

Most importantly, how will this new scheme impact the MGNREGA work in these selected districts? There is no clarity on this critical issue in the set of guidelines issued by the Ministry of Rural Development, the nodal Ministry for this scheme. Last year, under MGNREGA, in these 116 districts taken together, an average of just 43.7 workdays were created, which was lower than the national average of 50 days. This poor record of provision of work may have been one of the reasons for the higher rates of migration from these districts. Instead of new schemes why should MGNREGA not be expanded to give work to all workers? This is a legal right, whereas the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan has no such legal binding on the administration.

Also read | Economists call for urban jobs scheme

The scheme is primarily meant for migrant workers in those districts where their numbers are 25,000 or more. That means in these selected districts women who comprise a smaller percentage of migrant workers will be largely excluded. However, women in these districts had a high demand for work reflected in the fact that the average of women working in MGNREGA in these districts last year was 53.5%, which was higher than the average for the rest of India. So unless this work in 116 districts is in addition to MGNREGA, women will suffer.

Potential for MGNREGA

MGNREGA should not be diluted in the name of the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan. The potential for MGNREGA to provide relief to the suffering of rural India should be utilised to its fullest capacity. This will also require a removal of the restriction of only one person per household to make every individual eligible. The cap of 100 days should be removed to expand it to at least 200 days. Unemployment allowance should be guaranteed for all those turned away from work. And importantly, the government must ensure the release of funds on an emergency basis.

Brinda Karat is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha MP

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Printable version | Jul 6, 2020 11:41:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/utilise-mgnrega-to-the-fullest-capacity/article31957319.ece

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