With COVID-19 battering India once again, the government will have to consider opening up the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) scheme to support fleeing migrants with at least 200 days of work. But the government’s budgetary allocation for the current fiscal shows it is not prepared for scaling up the scheme.
In the first phase of the pandemic, MGNREGA had come to the rescue of these hapless migrants. Official data show that in 2020-21, the demand for work under MGNREGA was the highest ever. More than 8.19 crore households demanded work last fiscal against less than six crore in 2019-20. The number of person days created under this scheme was 383.01 crore in 2020-21, the highest ever; and up by 45 per cent over the previous fiscal.
But the NDA government had been, until last fiscal, reluctant to acknowledge the role MGNREGA was playing in keeping rural hunger at bay. After all Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in 2015 termed MGNREGA as the “living monument to failures” of the UPA government. But midway through the pandemic, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman increased the budgetary allocation for the scheme. In the budget estimates, the scheme was allocated ₹61,500 crore; additional ₹50,000 crore were subsequently provided mid-year, taking the total allocation to ₹1,11,500 crore – the highest ever.
Even after increased allocation, not all households that demanded work under the scheme actually managed to get it last fiscal, nor did every worker entitled to a wage earn one. Siraj Dutta, who works extensively in Jharkhand with the ‘Right to Food Campaign’, pointed out that last year, of the total rural households registered under the MGNREGA programme, average employment per household was only 51 days against the mandated 100 days. “People are not getting even 100 days mandated currently,” he said. Now, as the second wave of infections seems to be again pushing migrant labour back to hometowns, activists are not only seeking the mandated 100 days of guaranteed employment, they have begun demanding more days of guaranteed work and better remuneration for those who do find it.
Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor at Azim Premji University and member of LibTech India, said: “Given the second wave of infections, it is imperative that the central government doubles MGNREGA household entitlements; a demand that has been standing for over a year now.” This essentially means each rural household should get guaranteed 200 days of work each year.
Under the existing provisions of the MGNREGA, any state facing a natural calamity can seek an increase in the number of mandatory man days to 150 a year (from 100). During the budget session of Parliament, the rural development minister was not in favour of increasing the number of days of guaranteed work.
In reply to a question over “sanctioning more man days under MGNREGA”, Narendra Singh Tomar had said his ministry had no such plan.
Meanwhile, it is interesting to see that while demand for work and therefore government allocation under MGNREGA would likely increase again this fiscal, the Ministry of Rural Development has already scaled down budgetary allocation for the scheme. For 2021-22, BE is only ₹73,000 crore – more than BE of 2020-21 but almost three-fourths of the revised estimates. In its comments before a parliamentary standing committee examining its demand for grants, the ministry has said that it had allocated ₹80,000 crore for MGNREGA for FY22 but cut back the allocation subsequently to ₹73,000 crore for BE. But since MGNREGA is a demand-driven programme, it can always seek more funds from the finance ministry, if needed.
Narayanan has also pointed out that no one knows for sure how long this second wave of infections will last. “It is a great opportunity to build good assets in rural areas in the premonsoon period.”
As for wages paid under the scheme, the government announced its annual wage rate hike a few weeks back. A worker in Kerala will not be entitled to a single rupee extra since the rate remains at 2019-20 level; in Bihar, a worker under MGNREGA can now earn the princely sum of ₹4 more; in Chhattisgarh the increase is ₹3. In many states, the MGNREGA per day wages continue below the respective minimum wages for agricultural workers and activists have been demanding a suitable correction in this math too. According to data submitted by the ministry to the standing committee, the average daily wage rate under MGNREGA came to ₹200.27 in FY21.
Siraj pointed out that in Jharkhand, the increase per day comes to ₹4 but the wage is still below the minimum wage (₹198 versus ₹295). “Now, the state government has fixed MGNREGA wage at ₹225 per day and will pay the differential. But this still falls short of the minimum wage rate.”