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Why condition of NREGA workers is likely to be more difficult this year


By Bharat Dogra*
Having just completed 16 years of its eventful existence, it is clear that despite several problems including underfunding, corruption and lack of adequate planning, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the works carried under it have emerged as a significant source of employment and relief to the rural poor in India. A big asset of this Act and the scheme it creates is that it makes available work on demand within or very near to the village and so people get paid to create or improve assets that bring greater sustainability to their own villages.
The role of NREGA in helping the rural poor became even more important in COVID times when reverese migration led to a big increase in the need to increase employment opportunities in villages. Hence increasing the NREGA (or MG-NREGA or Mahatma Gandhi-NREGA) budget became an important part of the special COVID packages announced by the government during the financial year 2020-21. While the full potential of NREGA has not been realized yet nor has it functioned entirely according to legal norms, nevertheless it was nice to see the NREGA expenditure peaking at 111,000 crore in 2020-21, providing employment to about 11 crore (110 million workers) from around 75 million households ( compared to around 99 million who have active job-cards). The next year the expenditure has declined to around Rs. 98,000 crore, judging from the revised estimate, resulting in lesser employment compared to the peak of 2020-21.
Even when the expenditure peaked, we were far from achieving the legal norm of providing 100 days employment per card holding household who demands work, or making all wage payments within the legal limit of 15 days, or meeting all demands for work ( or providing compensation in lieu of this). In 2021-22 about 8.3 million demands for work, or 11% of the total demands, remained unmet. Work per household was for around 44 days, instead of 100.
So it is sad to see that for financial year 2022-23 budget estimate for NREGA has been kept very low at Rs. 73,000 crore ( one crore=10 million). According to NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a group that has played an important role in monitoring the progress of NREGA, pending liabilities amout to Rs. 18350 crore, so actually only Rs. 54,650 crore will be available. Assuming that all card holders denand work, this group has estimated that this amount will be adequate for providing only 16 days work instead of the legal norm of 100 days.
Another group called PAEG (People’s Action for Employment Guarantee) has also done admirable work on tracking and monitoring the progress of NREGA. According to PAEG, the past deficit amounts to Rs. 21,000 crore and so in effect only Rs. 52,000 crore will be available. If the same number of households demand work in 2022-23 as did in the previous year, then PAEG estimates that it will be possible to provide only 21 days work per household instead of the legal norm of 100 days employment. PAEG has also stated that wage payment delayed for over 15 days as on Jan. 31, 2022 amounted to Rs. 3273 crore, involving about 2 crore transactions. About 11% of the job demands in 2021-22 were refused, amounting to a total of about 83 lakh work demands which could not be met. This is set to increase, keeping in view the much lower real availability of funds for 2022-23.
Thus it is clear that MG-NREGA progress this year may be full of problems. The government stand may be that allocation will be increased later at the time of preparing Revised Estimates (RE), as was done last year. But if the need for higher allocation is so clear just now on the basis of simple calculations, then why postpone this for so long? As past experience has shown, the initial low budget creates avoidable uncertainties, impedes proper planning and a time of extreme shortage appears in the middle of the year when funds are just not available even to attend to urgent demands. Besides, monitoring groups point out that while REs have raised funds for NREGA in the past two years, the increases have fallen far short of actual needs.
Keeping in view the actual needs and the legal entitlements of NREGA committing the government to meeting the demands for work, as well as the very real need for increasing employment and income opportunities in villages, a very substantial increase of NREGA budget is clearly needed.

*The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include 'Man Over Machine' and 'Protecting Earth for Children'

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