Last week, the Central government told the Supreme Court that more than one-third of India’s districts are currently affected by severe drought. In response, the court expressed its anxiety over steps being taken by the Centre and state governments in providing imminent relief. The court asked the Centre whether it was prepared to handle the situation and whether critical welfare schemes such as MNREGA, Food Security Act, and Disaster Management are being implemented properly to ensure people are able to survive the severe drought. On Tuesday more than 150 academics and activists wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing their deep concern on the severe drought and the impact it is having on the rural population. In the letter, these academics have accused the government of not doing enough and asked that it take appropriate relief measures immediately. But in its submission to the court last week, the Centre said that there has been no backlog of funds to the states. Moreover, the Centre argued that under the federal structure it has a “limited role” in such matters. The Centre’s counsel added that more than Rs 19,500 crore has been released for wages under MNREGA. But the sum released may not be enough, irrespective of whether it has “limited” role or not in providing relief to drought-affected areas. As the letter states: “The highest priority of the central government in a drought situation should be to ensure the creation of millions of additional person-days of work in all affected villages. Instead, the government has not even allocated enough funds this year to sustain the level of employment generated last year – 233 crore person-days according to official data. At current levels of expenditure per person-day, this would cost well over 50,000 crore rupees. Yet the central government has allocated just 38,500 crore rupees to MGNREGA this year, of which more than 12,000 crore rupees are required to clear pending liabilities.”
If one harks back to the apex court proceedings earlier this month, a similar point was raised by the petitioner, Swaraj Abhiyan—a non-governmental organization. It argued that the government has not even delivered on its promise and employment of even 50 days per household per annum. According to recent figures, less than 5 percent of rural households completed 100 days of work in 2015-16. A fundamental reason behind this downward spiral is the delay in wage payments. “Nearly half of all NREGA transactions worth Rs 7,200 crore until November (2015) were delayed,” according to a recent Hindustan Times report. “Of this, 62% payments saw delays of up to a month, 29% payments were held up for up to two months, and around 3% wages took over three months to reach workers.” In its recent bid to offset the distress caused by the recent rural crisis, the Centre had declared 50 additional days of employment in drought-affected districts. Unfortunately, data available in the public domain clearly states that in the nine worst drought-affected states, less than 10 percent of households could complete the mandated 100 days of work, with the sole exception of Maharashtra. Shrinking employment generation under MNREGA has worsened the current rural crisis as emergency relief measures for drought-affected farmers take months to arrive. If only the Centre woke up from its slumber. Evidence from independent research studies has shown that the jobs scheme has successfully limited distress migration, increased nutritional standards of households, provided risk resilience to small and marginal farmers and vastly expanded the financial inclusion net in the country. The World Bank recently said that the spike in ‘unmet demand’ for MGNREGA jobs is an indicator of increasing rural distress.
However, it is imperative to note that MNREGA cannot be implemented in isolation. To alleviate the country’s poor in such hard times, the Centre and state governments must implement MNREGA in tandem with other critical social welfare schemes. Unfortunately, as the letter states, both the Centre and the state have shown woeful disregard for the plight of the country’s poor. “Even more gravely, the central and state governments are doing far too little to implement the National Food Security Act, three years after it came into force. Had the Act been in place, more than 80% of rural households in the poorer states would be able to secure about half of their monthly cereal requirements almost free of cost. In a drought situation, food security entitlements should be made universal.” Government-sponsored welfare measures such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) are also critical to the delivery of basic essentials like food, healthcare and water to young children without caregivers in the poorest regions. Unfortunately, the scheme saw a 7 percent reduction in funds in this year’s Union Budget. When times are especially hard, the government needs to step in and do its job, be it the Centre or state governments.