Vol. XL No. 46 November 13, 2016

Subverting MNREGA, the BJP Way

Veeraiah Konduri

THE BJP government at the Centre is a master of doublespeak. It is now invoking the same skill while formulating its government policies. The BJP’s ability to deploy the social media to achieve desired goals is very visible in mushrooming of unidentified and unauthenticated platforms which are working as mouthpieces for the BJP as well as policy think tanks. Not just to meet its political goals but also to achieve administrative goals, it is using social media platforms to disseminate messages it desires to convey in an impromptu manner. Picking up the lead from such unauthenticated platforms, Modi’s bhaktas are unleashing frontal attack on their political as well as policy opponents. One of such unauthenticated social media platforms is now aimed at subverting the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the only legal entitlement agricultural workers and other sections of rural poor could get in nearly seven decades of independent India. Over the last decade, out of which four were drought years, MNREGA proved the lifeline for distressed rural poor despite its half-hearted implementation.

After coming to power, the Modi government tried its best to strangle the MNREGA. Even the Prime Minister himself told the Parliament that he would keep the programme alive only to showcase it as a monument of the Congress’ incompetence. Considering that as a signal, the Ministry of Rural Development issued circulars to limit not only the scope of MNREGA implementation but also its geographical reach. Outraged by its moves, the country has taken the BJP government to task at different stages over the last two-and-a-half years. The first ever attempt to counter the BJP came in the form of 24-hour hunger strike by the Tripura Chief Minister. The political support galvanised by the hunger strike forced the government to assure the Parliament that it would not in any way tamper or hamper the implementation of MNREGA. A recent Supreme Court judgment also pushed the government into giving similar kind of assurance which it had given to the Parliament. Apart from these two incidents, the back-to-back drought is the third factor which forced the government to eat its words on MNREGA. Despite these, the BJP government continues its attempt to subject the programme to nefarious attempts to scuttle it.  

The BJP government wants to adhere to its assurances to key players in finance capital that it will meet the compulsions of fiscal fundamentalism. It adopted an innovative tool to issue veiled administrative directions to the subordinates coordinating the MNREGA programme at state level. Failing to strangle the programme through official means, the BJP government resorted to an unofficial means to achieve the same goal. This raises several questions relating to propriety as well as ethics of public administration. A joint secretary level officer in the Ministry of Rural Development started a WhatsApp group and enrolled nearly four hundred key functionaries at different levels. This group has its explicit aim of smooth facilitation of programme implementation but its concealed aim is to subvert the implementation of MNREGA by roping the state governments’ functionaries in its subversive tactics. A detailed presentation about how a WhatsApp group issued veiled directions was made by Nitin Sethi, senior journalist from Business Standard. As revealed in the media, the instructions in the WhatsApp group are so commanding that the officials coordinating the MNREGA at state level could not go beyond them.

The MNREGA is universal in its nature. Schedule II of the Act says, “Every adult member of registered household whose name appears in the job card shall be entitled to apply for unskilled manual work under the Scheme; and every such application shall be compulsorily registered, issued a dated receipt and which shall be entered in the IT system”. In clear contravention to the mandate of the Act, a WhatsApp communication from the group administrator says, “We ought to desist from campaigning for enlisting demand and indulging in the mad race of more and more person-day generation.” The same message continues to issue its veiled instruction when it says, “While the Act does not distinguish between APL and BPL and vulnerable/non-vulnerable, we have to ‘intelligently’ communicate to the district/block/GP authorities to learn to target.” The basis of this instruction can be traced to the so-called Intensive Participatory Planning Exercise (IPPE) initiated by the BJP government in 2014 which aimed at geographically restricting the MNREGA implementation from existing level to merely 2,454 blocks. This is what the agricultural worker movement across the country protested and the Tripura Chief Minister sat on 24-hour hunger strike for. This protest action forced the central government to retreat from its agenda and now the programme is under implementation in all 6,860 blocks across the country with varied intensity. Now the government is again aiming at bringing back the agenda which it pushed under carpet for the time being. One of the declared criteria for selecting blocks under IPPE is concentration on scheduled caste and other downtrodden sections on priority basis. When we compare the outcome for 2015-16 financial year, it is in these IPPE blocks, the percentage of SC beneficiaries than the total percentage of work given is less. This one example is sufficient to understand the credibility of IPPE exercise.

Another message forwarded to state officials from the WhatsApp group suggests reopening the debate about the nature of the Act itself. The message says, “To resort to the logic that it is a demand-driven programme and whatever is asked for will be given, does not cut much ice now. This has been voiced in the Supreme Court too. There has to be a pragmatic handing of funds.” This is nothing but strangling the Act in implementation. Around the same time when the government came under fire from the Supreme Court, the Ministry issued the Master Circular for 2016-17.  The circular provides the final administrative guidance when it comes to the implementation of MNREGA. Section 2.2.1 to 2.2.4 clearly lays down the procedure to be adopted in terms of demand generation. The WhatsApp message clearly violates and contradicts the Master Circular issued two months before. Not only that, it also violates the assurance given to the Supreme Court as well as on the floor of the House. Now, the government has resorted to using a social media platform to bypass parliamentary mandate.

Before going to the next veiled instruction, it is pertinent to mention that over the last three-four months, both the Finance Minister as well as the Rural Development Minister made several statements that MNREGA is not short of funds. Even the Finance Minister, while placing his budget, offered benevolently that if need arises, the government is ready to earmark another Rs 10,000 crore for it. In the supplementary demands for grants, an additional Rs 5,000 crore has been earmarked with which the allocations for this programme crossed Rs 40,000 mark once again after a gap of five years. The media ran a series of write-ups acclaiming the government’s commitment to the implementation of MNREGA. The analysts missed an important aspect here.

As informed to the Supreme Court, the wage dues for 2015-16 years were more than Rs 12,000 crore. There is a provision for compensation on the delayed wage payment. Put together, the pending wage bill is a staggering Rs 13,000+ crore.  If we add the wage theft part, it will come to around Rs 20,000 crore as arrears. Wage theft is that margin between the average per day wage paid to MNREGA worker and the average notified wage. As per the data made available by the government, last year’s daily average wage per worker is worked out to be Rs 154. But the national average of state wide notified wages stands at Rs 199. That means, each MNREGA worker lost Rs 55 every day. Multiplied by the total number of person-days generated, it works out to be Rs 12,933.01 crore. That means, the government through various mechanisms withheld the MNREGA workers wage amounting to Rs 12,933 crore, which is one-third of budget allocation for the programme.

It is in this context the ministry’s message in WhatsApp group is to be understood. The ministry official, who is in-charge of the group, laments about the lack of funds and asks his colleagues in states to stretch out the remaining funds for the rest of the financial year. As per official estimates, 85 per cent of budgeted funds have been spent within the first five months of the financial year. The amount spent to pay the wage arrears is part of the last year’s budget and it should not be accounted for in this budget. That means, the government should refill the MNREGA fund pool for the current year itself. If they are paying arrears of last year from current budget allocations, it is the fault of the government and not that of workers. Of these, February-March are going to be peak demand months. Hence if the government is committed to its own Finance Minister’s words, it should release not less than Rs 20,000 crore additionally over the budgeted funds till now. Instead of doing so, it is asking the authorities to strangle the implementation and delay wage payments so that the workers express their unwillingness to work under this programme. To ensure its administrative goals, it resorted to a social media platform instead of standard operating procedure. Any standard operating procedure is liable for public scrutiny.