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Safety net? MGNREGA turning into 'non-functional' scheme hurting rural poor

By Sanket Pandhare* 

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), offering up to 100 days of guaranteed work each year to rural Indians in every household whose adult members volunteer to do manual unskilled work, is the largest social protection programme in the world, in terms of the number of households covered.
There is a debate going around whether MGNREGA provides a vital social safety net for the poor or merely burdens the economy. Activists say that the employment guarantee scheme is nearly on its death bed and the only solution for its revival depends upon political will.
The rural job guarantee scheme’s story on ground remains opposite to its laid down principles. Bihar has one of the largest numbers of migrant labourers. Ashish Ranjan and Kamayani founded the Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan, an organization focused on effective accessibility and implementation of MGNREGA for the State’s rural poor. 
A trained engineer who previously worked at the Birla Institute of Technology, Patna, Ashish is also convener of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). 
During an interaction, Ashok Ranjan told me that flaws in the scheme were long recognized and misused. There were severe shortage of funds under MGNREGA in the State. There were times when payments to the workers were stopped. 
Workers were often misled when it came to paying them for their labour by announcing wrong dates for release of funds. Also, there are many other reasons as well because of which the payment of labourers gets delayed such as fund flow from the central government.
Many a time the funds dry up and the workers have to wait for several days to get their payments. MGNREGA, which is a people-oriented, self-determining, demand-led, rights based programme that ensures the employment particularly to rural population, seems to have been intentionally turned into a non-functional scheme hurting the rural population.
Lack of execution and competency by village panchayat members in implementing the scheme is clearly visible. Sufficient funds and proper manpower must be made available to the panchayats so that they are capable of implementation of the scheme effectively. In spite of MGNREGA being rights based programme which guarantees employment, there is little awareness among the rural population.
People are not aware about their basic entitlements such as job cards, minimum wage amount, minimum number of employment days, etc. This not only leads to poor implementation of the scheme but also corruption. In Bihar, a worker works for an average of 45 days, whereas the scheme promises employment for 100 days. This clearly shows the lack of execution of the scheme.
In 2020, the shutdown of all economic activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a massive loss of livelihood. The unorganized sector consisting of about 400 million workforce was one of the worst affected sections of society.
A significant part of this workforce has reverse migrated from cities to their rural areas. Similar is the case with Bihar. In order to address this migrant crisis, the government has allocated additional fund of 40,000 crore for MGNREGA, as a part of stimulus package under Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan.
For Bihar the budget allocated was around Rs 2,500-3,000 crore over the years which was less compared to states like Andhra Pradesh. For a state like Bihar, this budget is not sufficient and hence should be increased.
Even today it is a tough task for people to even submit a job application under MGNREGA. Many other entitlements provided by the government do not reach people causing millions to live under abject poverty.
Ashish and his team gathered common labourers under the union Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan that mobilizes the rural poor to demand better services from the government and to get the existing entitlements as laid down by law. They aim to bring about a larger change in the lives of rural poor by means of “sangharsh” (struggle) and “nirman”.
MGNREGA and many other entitlements provided by the government do not reach people causing millions to live under abject poverty
The union demands work for the individuals on their behalf and gets the receipt so that the work gets officially registered, and once the demand is registered the work is allocated. This helps the uneducated labourers get employment. This eliminates the means for corruption.
Earlier the authorities responsible for registering the demand and allocating the work decided whom to officially register and whom not to. This many times ignored the actual needy workers. Sometimes the work is completed using machines and not actual workers.
To cover this up, a fake list of workers is created. The workers are sometimes told that their name was on the list but they did not show up for the work. This is clearly a way of scamming the workers. To prevent this from happening further, Ashish and his team help rural poor people to avail their rights.
Many rural people don’t know that once the demand gets officially registered in the system, the work is bound to be allocated. The union tries to enlighten people about this and help them get work opportunities. Sometimes when the demand is forcefully registered, the head of panchayat raj allocates a project which is bound to halt or have problems in the near future.
In this case the union on behalf of all the workers takes this issue to higher authorities to start the project. When people come together and raise their demands within the rules, the authorities are forced to register their demands and this is what the union has been trying since the beginning to achieve equalitarianism.
Ashish also talked about the struggles with the local authorities and their various attempts to defame the union. They have been named ultra left at times so that the people don’t put their trust in the union. Despite their various attempts, the union has been successful in achieving their goals. 
However, Ashish believes, MGNREGA, in order to be successful, needs active participation and willingness of leaders and workers in large numbers.
---
*Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, Post Graduate Programme in Management, Class of 2022

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