The latest MGNREGA performance report is out, and kudos to Left-ruled Tripura for staying the course to retain its top position for the seventh straight year. Under the flagship rural employment scheme that legally guarantees a minimum 100 days of employment per year to every willing household, Tripura provided 94.46 man-days per household in 2015-16. Mizoram with 68.55 man-days and Sikkim with 66.97 man-days of rural jobs performed creditably too; in contrast, Aruchal Pradesh and Manipur could mage to provide only 27.47 and 15.65 man-days, thereby languishing at the bottom of the list. Let us not forget that the ‘Mahatma Gandhi tiol Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ (MGNREGA) has come back from the dead to complete 10 years this February. The largest social protection scheme of its kind in the world which treats employment as a right in rural areas, the outlook for MGNREGA was bleak just two years back. Prime Minister rendra Modi had sarcastically said in Parliament that the scheme ‘should be continued with song, dance and drum beat as a living monument of the UPA government’s failures’. After all, this ‘game changer’ which arguably helped the UPA retain power in 2009 — had come under the CAG scanner in 2013 as a money guzzler riddled with corruption and loot of public funds. Only one-fifth funds were found to be going to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra where nearly half the country’s rural poor reside. A study by the Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices (CACP) had found that though rural wages were growing, the impact of MGNREGA on this upswing was minimal. So the NDA government had enough reasons to mull limiting the scheme’s coverage to a few very poor districts.
But the situation changed drastically thereafter with two back-to-back droughts and a global crash in agri-commodity prices. Suddenly, widespread farm distress became very real, putting beyond reach the Modi government’s fond aim of at least 4 percent annual growth in the farm sector. It became an urgent need to keep demand in rural areas steady, and MGNREGA was soon back in favor. A NCAER study in 2015 showed that the scheme, in fact, helped in lowering rural poverty by nearly 32 percent from 2004-05 to 2011-12, preventing 1.4 crore people from falling into poverty. This year MGNREGA’s ten-year achievements have been hailed as a cause of tiol pride. A scheme derided for forking out subsistence wages to ‘a poor man digging ditches a few days a month’ is now being expanded to take on new roles. The NDA government is reportedly planning to get irrigation cals, farm ponds, wells and vermi-compost pits dug, more village roads built and other works executed every year under MGNREGA. To enlarge the scheme and link it up with agriculture, irrigation, animal husbandry, road building, conservation of resources and other sectors, the budgetary allocation for MGNREGA was hiked to a whopping Rs 38,500 crore this year. Claiming to have streamlined fund transfer to states within 48 hours of generation of transfer orders, the Centre is now working to cut delay in paying wages to workers by getting them open bank accounts seeded with Aadhar numbers. However, Tripura remains unconvinced by the Centre’s claims, complaining that the union rural development ministry never releases MGNREGA funds in time. There are also allegations that the Modi government has been favoring BJP-ruled states in disbursal of MGNREGA funds. Such tug-of-war over a scheme found useful by both the UPA and NDA as a vehicle to transfer money to the rural poor is unfortute, to say the least. Lest we forget, only 1.35 lakh jobs were created in the country last year the latest Labour Bureau data, the lowest in six years. There is little margin for Central and state government to play politics over MGNREGA, with slowing, jobless growth threatening to lay waste rural areas.