April 02, 2023
Ramp up MGNREGS, Not Strangle It

EVER since the Modi government came to power in 2014, it has been trying to somehow strangle the rural job guarantee scheme (MGNREGS). Driven by its commitment to the discredited neoliberal dogma that public expenditure should be cut down in order to allow the private sector to have its way and guide the economy more ‘efficiently’ and ‘productively’, the government has not only periodically cut budget allocations to various welfare schemes, including MGNREGS, but it has also taken other devious measures to squeeze the schemes.

In the case of MGNREGS, budget allocation of Rs 73,000 crore was proposed for 2022-23 but it is estimated that Rs 89,400 crore would actually have been spent. This is down nearly 10 per cent from Rs 98,467.85 crore spent in the preceding year, 2021-22. However in the budget allocation for 2023-24, there is a cut of 33 percent over the revised estimate of Rs 89,400 crore. The allocation is only Rs 60,000. But this is not all that the government has been doing to the scheme. In January this year, it introduced compulsory marking of attendance by MGNREGS workers through a mobile based app called National Mobile Monitoring Service (NMMS) app. This has led to chaos at worksites across the country. With patchy internet connectivity, workers are reported to be spending hours just to get their attendance recorded. It is a life and death issue for them because failure to mark their attendance would mean loss of wages for the day. Imposition of this kind of hi-tech measures is a well known ploy of this government, ostensibly to tackle fraud. It has been imposed earlier in PDS distribution, in marking attendance of government school teachers, etc – all with similar chaotic and tragic consequences for the people. Thousands are deprived of PDS rations due to a slew of errors apart from connectivity issues – Aadhaar mismatch, bank account mismatch, fingerprint recognition failure and so on. Similar problems are being faced by workers in MGNREGS. The effect of such rules is to discourage workers from approaching the MGNREGS system for work.

A similar dampener is the regular delay in wages, often beyond the 15 days leeway that is allowed. According to the government’s own data, Rs 3,630 crore worth of wages were paid after 15+ days delay in the current year while Rs 1,010 crore was pending as unpaid wages. For workers doing backbreaking drudgery for a pittance, holding back of wages at this scale is unbearable often forcing them to opt for other work where cash earnings are available immediately, even if these are less than MGNREGS wages. The government has with usual fanfare announced a measly hike in MGNREGS wages ranging between 2 per cent to 10 per cent which works out to increases between Rs 7 to Rs 26 per day. Inflation has been raging between 6-8 per cent in the past several months while food inflation is higher at 8-10 per cent. There is no reason to believe that this high rate of inflation will go down in the coming financial year for which these wage hikes have been announced. In fact, MGNREGS wages are often lower than prevailing wage rates for agricultural workers as also for non-farm workers. The average daily wage in MGNREGS work was just Rs 217.87 in the 2022-23 financial year compared to Rs 349.77 for male general agricultural workers as per RBI data.

Also notable is that average number of days of work given to workers in the scheme was just 47 in this year although the law mandates a minimum of 100 days of work. It is this lethal combination of restrictions – low and irregular wages, digital obstacles, insufficient number of days of work – that has led to a dip in the number of households getting work in the scheme. As per official data, about 8.6 crore persons found work in the scheme in the current financial year compared to 10.6 crore last year. That’s a dip of 2 crore or nearly 20 per cent over last year. And this is without taking into account nearly 1.6 crore persons who applied for work in the scheme but were turned back. 

MGNREGS is a lifeline for crores of households despite the low wages and insufficient number of days of work. The meagre earnings are precious because there are hardly any job opportunities in the country, prices are destroying family budgets and the resulting economic distress is relentless. What is needed is ramping up the job guarantee scheme, increasing wages and workdays, extending it to urban areas – and an end to the cat and mouse game with it.

(March 29, 2023)