When it comes to creating rural employment, the implementation of MGNREGA in Assam has been far from satisfactory. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is aimed at creating a minimum of 100 working days for one member of every willing household, but Assam has been consistently falling much short of this target. Latest Central government figures show that the State has been slipping up in terms of number of households being denied work under the scheme, the number of households managing to get 100 working days, and the number of average working days for a job card holder. In the two financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17 (up to first part of March), only 32 and 28 working days respectively have been created on average per household. This despite the Assam spending 123 percent of the total budget allocated for the scheme, as per a report last year by Accountability Initiative, the Delhi-based advocacy group. Rolled out as a flagship UPA scheme in 2006, it is ironic that Congress governments in Assam failed to leverage it sufficiently over a decade in creating sustainable rural assets. Some glaring anomalies are there for all to see — a whopping 1.98 lakh bogus job cards have been cancelled by the State government by January this year, while lakhs of job card holders who worked under MGNREGA have not been paid their wages. In August last year, it was revealed in Parliament that the wage liability in Assam had reached Rs 475.32 crore by the end of 2015–16 fiscal. In a Centrally–funded scheme based on 90:10 share, how is it that the wages of so many job card holders were left pending by the previous Congress regime in the State? CAG reports in the past have castigated the Assam government for failure in the primary objective of ensuring at least 100 working days due to ‘improper and ineffective planning’. There were detailed mention of irregularities like non-utilisation of funds, non-transparent registration process and issuance of job cards, non-payment of allowances and compensation to eligible workers, suspect procurement of materials, poor maintenance of accounts, inadequate inspection and maintenance of works, and failure in creating durable assets.
It has been recognised that MGNREGA, with the noble objective of transferring incomes to the poor, has been a leaking scheme full of ‘ghost’ workers labouring for umpteen non-existent days. While government data show MGNREGA works completed and monies paid out, other surveys show beneficiary households having no recollection of receiving such payments! Clean-up efforts are being made through community-based accountability mechanisms like social audits, while the government is banking on better use of IT database and space technology for planning MGNREGA works. Since 2013, the government has been trying to address concerns about the utility and durability of assets created by stipulating that 50 percent of MGNREGA works has to be productive rural infrastructure and 23 percent must be assets for marginalised communities. But there are greater concerns about more than half of MGNREGA monies going to the non-poor, that the scheme has been reducing rural poverty by just a fraction. Significantly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi after initially dubbing the scheme “a living monument of the UPA’s failure”, has chosen to back it. Finance minister Arun Jaitley in this year’s general budget hiked allocation for MGNREGA to Rs 48,000 crore, the highest since inception of the scheme. Some positives derived from the scheme have been hailed, at least in the better performing states — like rural workers getting employment during the off season, women getting greater work opportunities, and some reduction in distress migration to urban areas. Government figures have attributed to MGNREGA considerable role in reduction of unemployment rate to 4.8 percent by February this year. But experts have pointed out that even if ditches and tanks are dug, dams and toilets built or roads laid in rural areas under MGNREGA, it can never be a long-term solution to crippling unemployment the country is facing. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has been pressing upon the Centre for release of funds to expedite several rural schemes in Assam under MGNREGA. But his government will first have to take a hard look at how the scheme has fared in the State so far, and how estimates of demand for work and draft plans for employment have been submitted to the Centre in earlier years.