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Why Govt of India must increase NREGA allocation to Rs 1 lakh crore for 3 months

By Debmalya Nandy*
Successive governments have failed to realize the true potential of the rural employment programme and how the spirit of employment guarantee has got lost in complex bureaucratic processes over the years. While theNational Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been a lifeline for 13 crore rural households over the past 14 years, complex administrative processes and unnecessary technological interventions have killed the idea of job guarantee, which was the primary objective behind the legislature.
NREGA, considered the first step towards reinforcing the idea of people’s right to work, initiated the hope of rapid expansion and value addition in terms of both scale of operation and benefits. While significant scale could be achieved due to demand for employment in rural areas, its benefits remain non-lucrative. NREGA wage rates are currently less than the minimum agricultural wages of respective states.
The programme could never become what it was designed to, and the idea of demand-based employment has remained a distant dream even 14 years after its inception. Bureaucratic ignorance, widespread corruption, over the top technological interventions and complex administrative processes, have reduced the scope of the programme to a level where it is seen as an agonizing compulsion for many.
Rampant use of machine at the NREGA worksites, leakages through forging of muster rolls, non-payments to workers and long delays in central fund disbursements have become some of the key features of the programme today. The real time MIS (management Information system) based implementation policy and centralized payments could hardly improve ground operations.
Rather it has destroyed local accountability, diminished local mechanisms for transparent action and shifted the control of the programme completely to the hands of local bureaucracy, contractors and middlemen, totally contradicting the idea of demand-based employment programme.
While non-availability of work against demand and non-timely generation of muster rolls are widely known facts, unemployment allowances were always hard to come by. One can find handful of cases where allowances were finally given to the people -- those who got the unemployment payments had to fight long battles with the administration to access their entitlement.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s infamous and rather cocky statement on the floor of Parliament in 2015 about NREGA being a monumental failure of the Congress regime was a political jibe, but it has also shown that the government has no intention to revive the programme and will only keep it alive in orations to use it time and again for gaining political mileage.
The country was already going through unprecedented economic distress with unemployment rates reaching a 45 year high last year. The corona pandemic has now caused more damages, snatching away more jobs. The unprecedented unemployment levels will last for quite some time, as construction and manufacturing sectors will suffer great losses due to the current lockdown.
Current joblessness calls for action by Central and state governments to invest in public funds for universal job generation programmes
A major chunk of the migrant workers, who depend on daily or fortnightly wages, are not supposed to get back to the cities once reverse migration takes place. They will look to earn as much as possible from farm-based livelihood options and rural wage schemes. However, they face uncertainty here, too.
The current joblessness calls for urgent action by Central and state governments by investing in public funds for universal employment generation programmes. NREGA needs to be strengthened in order to revive the rural economy, while urban employment guarantee programmes should be introduced to deal with the crisis.
The Odisha government has already declared an urban employment generation programme by allocating Rs 100 crore. An initial allocation, it is inadequate, but is a welcome move which should be followed by all states.

Expand the scope of NREGA

The Central government’s current allocation of Rs 61,500 crore for 2020-21 in NREGA is not even adequate to run the scheme for the next three months. On top of it, more than Rs 10,000 crore out of the current allocation will be spent to clear the liabilities of previous years.
Economists and social scientist suggest that the demand for NREGA works will increase many times the current rate in coming months, putting pressure on the current pool of funds which got sanctioned by the ministry of rural development. The government should immediately allocate supplementary funds to increase allocation to at least Rs 1 lakh crore for the next three months till accurate estimations for potential demands are mapped.
Additional allocation will ensure uninterrupted operations for the next three months which is crucial for the people accessing it. Unless additional resources are allocated, the government will face funds crunch, and subsequently there will be delay in payments, which can prove to be fatal for the workers in this current situation.
In the pre-monsoon agricultural season there will be great need for cash in the rural areas in order to ensure adequate investment in kharif, which is connected to food security and cash income for year-round needs of millions of farmers residing in areas with little irrigation cover. Farming in such regions is broadly dependent on monsoon rains.
Even in the regions with improved irrigation facilities, due to the restrictions in transportation, crashing of markets and broken supply chains during the lockdown, things are becoming difficult. The livestock sector has crashed due to the non-availability of feed, vaccines and lack of marketing options.
In short, there is cash loss in the rural areas which needs significant capital infusion to cope with the situation. Fallback on public works programmes like NREGA can serve as safety net and help revive the economy during the current uncertainties.

What can be done in NREGA?

Increasing the current allocation to Rs 1 lakh crore will allow the government to come up with a concrete strategy in the medium and longer term for the rural job programme. The Centre should treat the current situation as a national emergency and bring about quick reforms in the NREGA system in order to stave off extreme economic poverty, which could cause many more cases of starvation across the nation in the coming days.

Some immediate needs:

  1. The government should revoke the system of job card and demand-based allocation of works for the time being in order to ensure all needy families get work. The work registration facility should be available at the worksite and workers should be able to register for work at the site itself. Considering the fact that millions of households still don’t have job cards and demand based allocation systems never really took off ever, this arrangement will ensure work for all at-least.
  2. The government should immediately allow unlimited workdays for each adult of every household for the next three months in order to cope with the current shock and joblessness till the time an accurate estimation of demands and subsequently workdays per households can be mapped by the concerned authorities. 
  3. Paper muster rolls should be brought back replacing e-muster rolls in order to corroborate the system of job site registration of workers. 
  4. Money should be routed through gram panchayats which can make payments to workers every week. The centralized payments system is rocked with uncertainty and causes great delay. The current situation needs a decentralized mode of operation where local problems can be solved locally and local elected representatives have more power to ensure work allotment and payments to the workers. 
  5. The technological interventions like sanctioning through the software-based system of SECURE should be put aside and simplified systems should be put in place. The gram panchayats should be able to sanction schemes quickly without having to follow unnecessary processes and documentations. 
  6. Women workers who are pregnant should be given a special monthly allowance as maternity benefit proportionate with the current wage rates. 
  7. In the current situation elderly people (above 60 years of age) have been restricted from working under NREGA. They should be paid a monthly allowance commensurate with the wage rate of the state to sustain their lives. 
Workers and civil society organizations have been long demanding to revamp NREGA through better resource allocation and enhanced entitlements but successive governments have remained deaf and sidelined the issues of rural employment. Mismanagement and leakages have resulted into great fatigue among workers who are compelled to do hard physical labour at job site without knowing whether they will get paid for it.
The government, it seems, would keep emphasizing how introduction of aadhaar in payments or a real time MIS based implementation system have addressed all inaccuracies and leakages and will keep boasting on big numbers shown on the MIS which is far from the rural realities. It is time to think about it all of it over again.
Distress faced by different strata of people during the lockdown requires that the people at highest positions in the government should introspect, accept realities, regain their conscience and develop some human interventions for millions of citizens of the country, who are facing situations which we cannot even begin to understand.
***
Reference:
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*Associated with the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha

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