Last month civil society organisations had accused the Narendra Modi-led NDA government of “brutally” cutting down the funds meant for the largest social welfare programme in the world. Speaking to the media, Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS) activist Nikhil Dey alleged that the Centre has slashed Rs 3,000 crore from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in the current fiscal. However, the idea that it would be scaled back was announced with no explanation from the government. Despite its pitfalls, the scheme has played a significant part in poverty alleviation.
According to recent data procured from the National Sample Survey Organisation, in 2013-14, 2.2 billion person days of work were generated by the programme, covering around 50 million households and over 200 million people. Contrary to some reports, a study by Clement Imbert from Oxford University has stated that 80% of the reported work days had occurred, a huge improvement from the 50% in 2007-08. Key reforms to the scheme, including the fact that in many states the money goes directly to the beneficiaries’ bank account, has helped its cause. Other studies have also shown that allegations against the scheme, including the one which points to the unproductive nature of the work, were not based upon facts on the ground. In response to such alleged unproductivity, the government has diverted funds meant for rural workers towards the procurement of machinery, among other purchases.
However, this is not to suggest that the scheme is not without its pitfalls. One of the key failures of MGNREGS is that it’s not responsive or flexible to the immediate needs of the rural worker. Almost all the work that takes place under this scheme happens in the dry season. Also, the worker will have to be present in area, where the work is being laid out, among other drawbacks. Interestingly on November 28, Union Minister for Rural Development Birender Singh stated that the criticism of MGNREGA has emanated from big landlords in the countryside, who have complained that they are unable to find workers during the cropping season. In fact Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar lead a protest against the dilution of the scheme in the national capital on 26 November. He alleged that the state is facing a massive cut in funds from the Centre. Instead of unilaterally withdrawing funds for the scheme, it will be better on the government’s part to start a debate about what improvement could be made to the scheme.