Millennium Post
Opinion

Don’t mock MNREGA, encourage it

Schadenfreude is a word taken from German, which roughly translates into the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. This word is important in a political context because in its year-long tenure, the present government has not let a single opportunity slide to criticise the follies of the previous ruling dispensation. Every time the present government takes potshots at the erstwhile Manmohan Singh-led regime, not only do those potshots smack of a distinct sense of Schadenfreude, they also reek of extreme political hubris.

The current Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has made no bones about its love-hate relationship with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone on record in Parliament and made the following statement to the Congress leadership sitting across him, “I will ensure that MNREGA is never discontinued. It is the biggest example of your failings. After so many years of being in power, all you were able to deliver is for a poor man to dig ditches a few days a month. My political sense says never scrap MNREGA.”
Given all the hullabaloo and hostile overtures made by the Modi government towards MNREGA; it is ironic that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley went ahead and increased its allocation from Rs 34,000 crore to Rs 34,699 crore.

This seemingly ungenerous largesse on Jaitley’s part towards MNREGA can possibly be attributed to two factors: the BJP government has not come up with an alternative to MNREGA or at least an alternative which they can soft-sell to the rural poor-the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme and a massive vote bank for the party. Given the political compulsions at play it’s a wise move on the part of the Modi-Jaitley combine to let the scheme survive. But what about the economic side of it? Is MNREGA that inefficient that it should be repealed? Can it not be salvaged if relevant leakages are plugged? Has it only managed to create ditches nationwide and then filled them up?

The government’s own data suggests otherwise. A majority of the works under the scheme had to do with rural sanitation. If one recollects sanitation is a cause close to the Prime Minister’s heart. In the run up to the general elections he had enthusiastically declared “Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya” (toilet first, temple later). Has he suddenly lost his enthusiasm to build toilets? Further data available in the public domain reveals that MNREGA has been used to create assets, which have improved rural connectivity, water conservation and drought proofing. Surely given the empirical evidence on record; to label MNREGA a mere wages for work scheme is to do it great disservice.

It’s not surprising that chief ministers across the board do not share Prime Minister Modi’s tacit animosity towards the scheme. Various chief ministers-both belonging to the BJP and from opposition-ruled states have written to the Centre, asking it to release MNREGA funds urgently. This was because the previous fiscal year had seen payments related to the scheme getting considerably delayed.

In a widely published letter last year, 28 noted economists had written, “The message seems to be that the new government is not committed to the NREGA and hopes to restrict it as much as possible. We urge you to reverse this trend and ensure that the programme receives all the support it requires to survive and thrive.” It seems that the letter had its intended effect at least for now. Jaitley’s budget indicates that the voices of those economists had been paid heed to.

Some economists, however, have pointed out that the scheme is holding back India’s economic growth because the outgo towards it contributes to the fiscal deficit. This is a funny claim primarily because the fuel subsidies on diesel and LPG are nearly double the outgo towards MNREGA. So going by the stated logic driving SUV’s and cooking food on gas stoves is also holding back India’s growth. Right wing columnists have gone hammer and tongs about how the wages for work scheme is prone to corruption. Again the logical question which follows is: Which institution in India is not prone to corruption? Should universities, the defense establishment, the law and order machinery also be disbanded because they are prone to corruption. This argument is tenuous and fallacy ridden on so many levels.

Even more controversial amongst the economic community is the government’s push to link MNREGA with the Aadhar card. Opinion remains divided amongst economists about the benefits of linking the scheme to the biometric card. Apprehensions amongst economists remain primarily because till date no large scale intensive study has been done to measure the Aadhar card’s relevant leakages. Secondly, linking the MNREGA to the Aadhar card will probably end up making it exclusionary in nature.

The Unique Identification Authority of India’s own “Biometrics Standards Committee” has noted on record that retaining biometric efficiency for a database, which will possibly run into millions, “has not been adequately analysed”. Even more problematic is the practical reality of taking fingerprint scans from rural labourers. It is a fact that till date the problem of fingerprint quality in India “has not been studied in depth”. The fingers of rural workers, who work with their hands, are prone to cuts and scars while working, which can lead to a negative reading. In other words the fingerprints might not match once the finger has healed from its wounds.

This is not to say that linking MNREGA with the Aadhar card is a foolhardy idea. Common sense dictates, why throw out a promise, possibly the only one on the horizon, because a database cannot be secured. No doubt, the programme could and should do even better and linking it with Aadhar could be one possible way forward. But the gains that have been achieved through MNREGA are substantial and amply justify further efforts to make it a success.

The Modi government should either show the political will to shut down the scheme entirely and let market economics and policy wonks take over completely; or it should show the wherewithal to plug the leakages in the scheme and release funds on schedule. Playing a passive aggressive game of ‘your policy or mine’ just does not cut it anymore. Officials in the Rural Development Ministry have admitted that deeply critical statements about MNREGA by high ranking members of the ruling party may have exacerbated the growing crisis of delayed payments. To delay payments to the scheme is to disparage the hard work of millions of labourers, who toil under harsh conditions to earn an honest day’s meal.

Next Story
Share it