As the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) completes 10 years, the NDA government on Tuesday claimed it has brought a “transformation” in the rural job guarantee scheme which was in a “pitiable” state under UPA due to frequent curtailing of funds. Speaking at a government-sponsored event, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the NDA government has boosted spending under the MGNREGA jobs scheme to a record high and will for the first time release more funds than budgeted. The minister was unequivocal in contesting the perception that the BJP government is neglecting the jobs scheme under the MNREGA or Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which was created by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Jaitley argued that during UPA rule, the final spending used to be lower than what was budgeted under the scheme. The government’s effusive praise for the employment scheme comes at an interesting time. It was only last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the scheme a memorial to the UPA’s failure. It seems that the imminence of Uttar Pradesh elections and the resounding electoral defeat in Bihar has forced a rethink on part of the NDA government. Electoral compulsions aside, it is good that the Centre wishes to increase expenditure in MNREGA. A majority of the works under the scheme had to do with rural sanitation. During the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Modi had enthusiastically declared “toilet first, temple later”. Of course, there is the Prime Minister’s flagship Clean India mission. Further delving into the data available in the public domain reveals that the MNREGA has been used to create assets which have improved rural connectivity, water conservation and drought proofing. Given the empirical evidence on record, it is fair to say that MNREGA has not merely been a wages for work scheme.
The government’s push to link MNREGA with the Aadhar card has been met with stiff opposition among certain grass-roots activists. Opinion remains divided about the benefits of linking the scheme to the biometric card. Apprehensions remain primarily because till date no large scale intensive study has been done which has measured Aadhar 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”. And then there is the practical reality of taking fingerprint scans from rural labourers. 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, such fingerprints might not match once the finger has healed.
This is not to say that linking MNREGA with the Aadhar card is a bad idea. Why throw out an idea 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. Fortunately for the government and the poor, the apex court last year had permitted the government to use Aadhar card for MNREGA. However, in an important clarification, the court said that no person shall be deprived of any benefit for want of an Aadhaar card.