A few days back, the Union Agricultural and Rural Development Minister Narender Tomar stated in a reply to a question in Parliament on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that the government is not in favour of running the Act forever. According to the minister, MGNREGA is a poverty elevation scheme, and the BJP government will eradicate poverty; hence, there will be no need for the Act. It shows the intention of the government that has been in consistent opposition to MGNREGA. This is a severe and dangerous indicator in times of unemployment and agrarian distress.
A large section of society is suffering from malnutrition. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4, out of total children under the age of five years, 38.4% are stunted, 35.8% are underweight and 53% women are anaemic in India. The leading cause of this malnutrition is unemployment that is affecting the availability of daily calories for common masses. During a meaningful Parliament discussion where valid concerns were raised about less allocation for MGNREGA, the minister’s statement comes as demoralising and a cause for anxiety among rural masses.
The current government’s attitude towards MGNREGA has been iterated time and again by the actions of its ministers. Even the prime minister himself issued a statement in Parliament which undermined the importance of rural employment guarantee act. While speaking in a budget session on March 12, 2015, PM Narendra Modi said, "Do you think, I will put an end to the scheme? My political wisdom does not allow me to do it. This is a living monument of your failure to tackle poverty in 60 years. With song and dance and drum beat, I will continue with the scheme". This statement about an Act, which provides a livelihood to crores of rural families, raises serious concerns. What is even more ridiculous is the fact that this understanding defeats the real perspective and concept of implementation of MGNREGA. It also symbolises the BJP government’s ideas for the path of development of rural India.
MGNREGA is an Act by Parliament NOT JUST a Scheme
The full understanding of the current government about the MGNREGA is incorrect. It is an Act passed by Parliament of India. There is a saga of struggles and hopes behind this Act. It is not a mere program, scheme or campaign which can be discontinued at any point in time, as reflected by the statements of the country’s political leadership. It is an Act which is binding by law and doesn't fluctuate with the moods of the government in power. It makes mandatory for the government to ensure 100 days work of any applicant family in a year. In the case of failure or refusal by the government, a rural worker can knock at the doors of the court. In the absence of work, the government is legally bound to give unemployment allowance in a time-bound manner.
Also read: Rural Development Minister Made a Mockery of MGNREGA, Says Activist Group
Along with the Right to Work, the other crucial objective of the MGNREGA is to develop sustainable assets in the rural area, improve land for agriculture and conserve water. A prospective plan will be sought through Gram Sabha, which will define tasks, and the workers from the panchayat will be employed for at least 100 days a year. In this manner, MGNREGA will help in rural development, along with the creation of jobs. At present, essential aspects including the Right to Work and planned development of the rural area, are missing from the implementation of MGNREGA. The government has implemented this Act as a simple welfare scheme for rural masses.
Positive experiences of MGNREGA
During the times of economic and agrarian crises, MGNREGA has helped rural masses to get their livelihood. Various studies point out that the Act has helped in poverty elevation and increase in the real wages in the rural areas. According to the report of the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER), at least 25% of the decline in poverty since 2004-05 for participating households can be attributed to MGNREGA. It is happening when it is aimed to ensure 100 days of work per family, not for each member of the family. The example of Tripura can be taken as a case in point where effective implementation of MGNREGA has improved the living standard of people by decreasing poverty. The Act also helps in inclusive development, as the participation of socially deprived sections is much more in the rural employment act in comparison to their percentage in the overall population. The Rural Development Ministry acknowledged the above mentioned fact and stated that, "Of the workers, the percentage of Scheduled Caste workers has consistently been about 20%, and Scheduled Tribe workers have been about 17%". Similarly, the participation of women workers is also very encouraging. Therefore MGNREGA is ensuring the livelihood of the socially marginalised sections of the society.
MGNREGA’s Relevance in Current Times
Presently, our country is going through a crucial juncture when our rural India is facing two critical challenges- unemployment and agrarian distress. Agrarian distress is displacing more and more peasants to leave cultivation and to join the force of rural unemployed masses. Industrial growth has also failed to generate employment, and according to the report of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the rate of unemployment is the highest ever in the last 45 years at 6.4%. This is a volatile situation, which is indicating a deep economic crises. One hundred days of work under MGNREGA to a rural household not only ensures well being of the members of the family but can also inject energy to economy by strengthening the purchasing power of rural masses. Therefore, the act is more relevant at the time of economic slowdown and unemployment.
Also read: Another Lifeline Smothered: MGNREGA in Shambles
Against this accepted understanding, the BJP government has failed to use MGNREGA positively; instead, it is working to weaken this Act. Despite tall claims, the shortage of fund continues to afflict the effective implementation of the Act. This year, too, there is an allocation of Rs. 60,000 crore for MGNREGA in the union Budget of 2019-20, which is less by Rs 1,084 crore than last year. On an average there is pendency of 20%-30% every year which are added to the accounts of next year, but there is no provision of extra budget to meet this pendency. This means this budget is much less compared to the actual requirement for the implementation of the Act. Scarcity of funds continues to be the major hurdle in providing 100 days work. It is a horrible situation when in 2017-18, the average days of work supplied to rural households was only 45 days. Not only the number of days of work was reduced, but the numbers of individuals were also cut by a massive 1.2 crore, indicating that 15% of the total were denied their right. A total of 8.4 crore persons had demanded work in the year 2017-18, but only 7.2 crore got the opportunity to work. These people did not get any unemployment for which they are entitled under Act.
The Way Ahead
Contrary to the constitutional obligation to effectively implement MGNREGA, the Modi government is working to dilute it and to reduce it to a mere scheme. The immense difficulties like technical problems, nexus of contractors with PRI representatives, corruption, etc. are also hard realities, but these can be overcome with active participation and consistent pressure of masses and political will. India doesn't have any other choice where 38% of rural masses are living in poverty. This is only an official figure, the reality might be much more.
Also read: How The Modi Government is Killing Off MGNREGS
In rural India, low productivity and unemployment are the primary reasons for poverty. The land under cultivation is continuously shrinking due to varied reasons. To add this situation, a large part of the country is facing continuous drought. In this scenario, MGNREGA has a significant role in generating employment for rural masses. It can be used to improve the land for agriculture and water conservation. This is not something hypothetical, but evidence shows that "Sustainable assets have been created and are linked to the conservation of natural resources and overall development of Gram Panchayats. More than 65% of the works taken up under the program are linked to agriculture and allied activities" as per the Ministry of Rural Development. It requires political will power and commitment to use MGNREGA to bring back the country’s rural economy back on track, which can be ensured by sustained mobilisations of masses.