Five ways to overhaul the rural jobs scheme

The finance minister has announced an additional Rs 40,000 crore for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) over and above the budgeted estimate of Rs 61,500 crore for this financial year. This is a welcome move by the Central government. However, demand for the rural job programme will be many times more than usual. A programme that has gone through continued fund shortage and implementation glitches since 2014 therefore needs more than just additional allocations at this hour of crisis. 

Since its launch in 2006, the MGNREGS has been a lifeline for nearly 130 million rural households annually. However, it has never seemed as relevant as it does today. An estimated 10 million workers are in the process of returning to their villages (many have already done so). Some will have jobs to go back to in the cities in a few days, but a significant proportion will have nothing to go back to. They will have no work in the villages either.

The unemployment rate had already reached a 45-year high last year. The pandemic and the lockdown have now created an unprecedented situation. Most stranded migrant workers are desperate to go home. But they have no idea what they will do there or how long they can sustain themselves. This is the lean season in agriculture, with no farm-related work on in most rural areas. Most rainfed regions, now barren, are also the source of the maximum number of migrants. Returning migrants will not find livelihoods in agriculture on their return. The best way to deal with this joblessness is to strengthen the MGNREGS.  

This is also critical for the country’s agriculture and food security. 

First, the kharif crop is the lifeline for farmers across India but specifically for those who do not have access to reliable irrigation. When the monsoon begins and the crop is to be sown, these farmers will need cash to invest in seeds, irrigation, fertilisers, labour and manure. But for most rural worker households, their cash is almost over. 

Then again, restrictions in transportation, the market crash and broken supply chains during the lockdown have led to serious losses for farmers. The livestock sectors have crashed completely, owing to unavailability of feed and lack of marketing options. 

A recent survey by Azim Premji University showed that six out of every 10 people in rural areas have lost their jobs during the lockdown, while eight out of 10 workers from the vulnerable communities and unorganised sectors in the urban areas have lost their jobs. With many migrant workers from the cities heading back to their villages, rural economic distress will deepen. In short, there is a desperate need for cash in the rural areas which can be eased by providing work and incomes under the MGNREGS.

Finally, the past few years have shown that soil and water conservation activities in the MGNREGS can yield huge results. Activities such as creation of farm bunds, ponds and recharge pits can be taken up on a massive scale now. This will not only help improve crop productivity but also lead to greater environmental sustainability of agriculture. 

Five immediate steps are required to strengthen MGNREGS after the budget enhancement. 

Job cards for all: Several workers' job cards were deleted either due to administrative errors or because they were outside when job card verification took place. The government needs to immediately initiate a campaign for identifying such workers and provide them job cards. 

Increase work-days: The upper limit of 100 days work is simply too low. For a family of four, it means just 25 days of work per person in a year. The number of work days for each adult of every household should be increased to 200 days, so they can cope with the current shock.

Wages for the elderly: In the current situation the elderly (above 60 years of age) have been restricted from working under the MGNREGS. The government should compensate such job-card holders by paying them at least 100 days’ wages.

Timely and complete payments: Mismanagement and leakages in the MGNREGS have led to a sense of hopelessness among rural workers. A paper by Ankita Aggarwal in the Economic and Political Weekly lists the 10 key reasons for non-payment or delays in payment of workers. The government claims it has nearly eliminated leakages and delays in payments by linking them with Aadhaar and a real-time MIS-based implementation system. This is not true. Glitches in the payment system must be fixed.  

Strengthen transparency: Leakages, presence of middlemen, and the use of machines have plagued MGNREGS implementation since inception. This can only be dealt with by addressing human resource shortfalls, and strengthening transparency, accountability, grievance redress and social audit systems in all states. The government needs to ensure that all positions are filled, and the official capacity is strengthened. This will ensure that workers avail of their right to work and receive timely payment, and quality assets are constructed.  

The government has been dismissive about rights-based legislation. Having increased the MGNREGS budget, the next big question is whether it will modify its stance and commit itself to strengthening the scheme when the nation’s workers and its villages need it the most.      

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