What and why was MGNREGA, or Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act? Even in its very name, it’s self-evident: it is to ‘guarantee’ employment to the unemployed in India’s sprawling villages, that lie, still, utter neglect, away from the Centre’s supposedly impartial eyes.
MGNREGA is one of the handful of worthwhile schemes that were conceived and implemented by the former UPA-I government, otherwise neck-deep in corruption and fraudulence. We have had reports of money meant for the scheme lost in transmission during the UPA-II regime. That we blamed on India’s systemic deficiencies, its faulty and utterly leaky public distribution system, and a thoroughly inefficient implantation system, bureaucratic inaptitude, among a horde of other things. But when the very core of such wide-ranging, long-term welfare schemes undergo thoughtless surgical procedures, there’s bound to be some blood, metaphorical mostly, but also, real.
Hence, we must question what the Modi government is up to as it changes the labour-material ratio from 60:40 to 51:49, starts rationing of funds earmarked for the scheme and reduces the coverage area to only one-third of the total blocks in the country. Does achche din mean cutting rural jobs in exchange of manufacturing more machines? This is not to say that the latter is not an absolutely central component of firing up the growth engine, but how can that be acceptable in lieu of crunching jobs aimed to provide employment (that too only for 100 days per year) in heartlands of rural India?
Modi government’s grand vision comprises smart cities and bullet trains, digital penetration and e-commerce, skill development and other urban promises. It’s the dream that Modi has sold and aspirational India has bought and believed. Yet, why should that nice dream bring on its heels economic woes for millions of people, a sharp fall in monetary support amounting to 136 crore persons day or about 40 per cent in employment generated. About five crore households will take the hit for this utterly unwise and downright ruthless decision of the Nitin Gadkari-led rural development ministry. What is the point of having in place welfare schemes if they have to be material-intensive and not people-intensive, keeping in mind fiscal gains and money saved instead of people reached and brought out of the poverty trap.