Dent in the lifeline
A glaring mismatch between the government’s claim of fund sufficiency and its own contradictory data has left genuine workers in limbo as many opt out of the scheme in want of timely wage security
Basiya Devi, who worked in the horticulture scheme months back, hasn't yet been paid her one-week wage. Every time she asks a local programme officer for her wage, she is being told that there is no fund.
Basiya Devi is not the only example. There are many who have not yet been paid their wages such as Rajo Devi of Saidpur Dumra village in Patepur Block in Vaishali district (Bihar), Mamata Devi of Bargaon panchayat in Bhojpur district (Bihar), Ranjan Kumar of Vaishali district (Bihar), Ramkanya Devi of Rajasthan, Shiwlal Oraon of Chhatarpur block in Palamu district (Jharkhand).
These are the names of just a few MGNREGA workers who are facing the apathy of systematic failure and have not been paid their wages. The list is big and it's getting bigger as the funds allocated by the Central government for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has been exhausted more than four months before the end of this financial year (2021-22) as the estimated expenditure has already exceeded the budget allocation and states have no money to pay for the wages of the workers.
It is really unfortunate that despite witnessing a 41 per cent rise in the demand for work due to security provided by MGNREGA during the first year of the pandemic in 2020, compared to the preceding year, the fund allocation for the programme was cut by nearly 30 per cent. Lack of funds results in suppression of demand for work and delayed payment of wages to workers.
The cause of concern for ground-level activists and researchers is that the government is repeatedly claiming that there is "no shortage" of funds in MGNREGA, which is in contradiction to their own data that clearly shows pending wages of all states to the tune of Rs 6,077.58 crore (till November 22).
"We are yet to find any government data establishing the claims of the Rural Development Ministry that there is no shortage of funds. If the claims of the government stand true, then where is the money and why is the Centre showing fund availability in the negative? It's their data and is available in the public domain. The government officials need to be more careful while making such statements and they should not befool the poor workers," said Nikhil Dey, who is a noted social activist and works for the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
"Can government officials, who get a handsome salary and dearness allowance of 31 per cent, work without salaries? They cannot. Then how can a poor worker, who has his daily earnings as his only saving, work without wages for months?" he asked.
"When state government officials try to convince workers that funds are not being released from the Central government, they (workers) fail to believe the technical issue. For them, it's the state government who is liable for the payment of wages," he said, adding that the scheme is a demand-driven programme and the Central government cannot deny wage payments.
In reply to a question whether the Centre is planning to "close" the job guarantee scheme, Dey said, "The government cannot do so as it has become the lifeline of the country."
In contrast to Dey, another social activist, Ashish Kumar Singh, who is based in Bihar's Katihar district, said that delay in payment of wages is an attempt to weed out "genuine" MGNREGA workers to adjust "fake" workers.
"The delay in wage payment to MGNREGA workers is a well-planned strategy of the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to 'shut down' the job guarantee scheme," said Singh, who is also national in-charge of Unorganised Workers and Employees Cell of Congress.
Singh further said, "The moment local officials tell MGNREGA workers that there is no fund and it would take about six months to pay wages, the poor workers would not work under the scheme and go somewhere else to meet two-time meal requirements."
"Since poor workers don't have any savings like government officials and they eat only when they work, so, under the given circumstances, how will they survive? If they don't get their wages, they have to borrow money from a local moneylender for survival," he said, adding that workers have already stopped working under the MNREGA in a few states.
Smelling a scam in delayed fund allocations, Singh said, "I have personally investigated that nowhere in Bihar the works under MGNREGA are being done as per the MIS record-sheet. I have submitted my investigation reports to the Katihar administration and other concerned officials, but no action has yet been taken."
"There are party workers from ruling parties who have become MGNREGA contractors under the 'patronage' of local administration. You will not see even a single work being done at the site as per the records available on the website. Most of the works listed on the website might have been completed or are to be done," Singh alleged.
The mandate of MGNREGA — launched by the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2005 — was to ensure job guarantee to every unskilled workforce of the country living below the poverty line.
At the start, the scheme played a significant role in putting a check on migration of workers, as every state was bound to provide a minimum of 100 days of employment in a year to every willing household within 15 days of making such a requisition, at minimum wages fixed by the respective state governments.
The scheme, which was once criticised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when it was in the Opposition, has now become one of the most important pillars of the government's social protection strategy, as it has also the provision of compensation through an unemployment allowance in case a worker fails to get employment within 15 days from the date of requisition.
No doubt, the Act has all the provisions to protect and ensure job guarantee as well as timely payments to workers employed under MGNREGA, but when it comes to real-time assessment, delayed payment of wages has become a new normal in the country's only job guarantee scheme. Allocated funds are getting exhausted even before the completion of the financial year and the reluctant approach of the Central government in releasing funds has put a question mark on the sustainability of the scheme.
The apathy of government agencies in the implementation of the scheme in totality has added to the woes of the MGNREGA workers, as they are bound to make an early exit from the scheme. The Centre has allocated Rs 73,000 crore at the budget estimate stage for the MGNREGA for the current fiscal year, which is 34 per cent less than the revised estimate of Rs 1,11,500 crore for the 2020-21 financial year.
However, in terms of budgetary allocation, there has been an increase of Rs 11,500 crore — from Rs 61,500 crore to Rs 73,000 crore during the period under review.
Most of the states are running short of funds due to which they are not able to pay wages to workers for their workdays. According to the latest data provided by the Ministry of Rural Development, the total pending wages of all states is Rs 6,077.58 crore (November 22).
Among the states, Tamil Nadu has the highest pending wages from the Centre as the state has a pendency of Rs 1,479 crore, followed by West Bengal which has a pendency of Rs 1,180 crore from the Central government and Karnataka having a pendency of Rs 486.7 crore.
The wage pendency of Kerala is at Rs 443.67 crore followed by Andhra Pradesh (Rs 416 crore), Madhya Pradesh (Rs 368.14 crore), Bihar (Rs 293.74 crore), Rajasthan (Rs 262.77 crore), Uttar Pradesh (Rs 252.59 crore), Jharkhand (Rs 227.91 crore), Odisha (Rs 152.26 crore), Himachal Pradesh (147.49 crore), Punjab (116.69 crore) etc.
Red-flagging the shortage of funds, ground-level activists and researchers have always advocated for an increase in the budgetary allocations for MGNREGA. Last week, two organisations — People's Action for Employment Guarantee (or PAEG) and LibTech India — came up with several similar findings of MGNREGA's implementation in the first half of the current financial year.
As per the study conducted by LibTech India and PAEG, wage payments were delayed for 71 per cent of the transactions beyond the mandated seven days, 44 per cent of the transactions beyond the mandated 15 days and 14 per cent of the transactions beyond the mandated 30 days. The study has been conducted on about 1.8 million transactions between April 2021 and September 2021 by randomly sampling 10 per cent of the Fund Transfer Orders (FTOs) from one block per district per state for 10 states.
Normally, the MGNREGA payment process consists of two stages. Under Stage 1, which is the state government's responsibility, a Fund Transfer Order (FTO) with worker details is digitally sent to the Central government by panchayat/block after work is completed. In Stage 2, the Central government then processes the FTOs and transfers wages directly to the workers' accounts.
As per the Act's guidelines, Stage 1 must be completed within eight days and Stage 2 must be completed within seven days after Stage 1. Workers are entitled to receive delay compensation for each day's delay beyond 15 days.
As per the study, Stage 2 for nearly two-thirds of transactions in Jharkhand exceeded 15 days. Stage 2 for half or more than half of the transactions of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and West Bengal exceeded 15 days.
Echoing the voice for more funds in MGNREGA, the country's top economists, researchers and activists have written an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and expressed their concern about the fund crunch in MGNREGA. They have also demanded immediate release of additional funds to ensure that the programme functions as per the law.
The letter, signed by several academicians and intellectuals including Jean Dreze, Jayati Ghosh, CP Chandrasekhar, Amit Bhaduri, Prabhat Patnaik, C Rammanohar Reddy, R Nagaraj, Pronab Sen
and others underlined that the MGNREGA has assumed more significance during the pandemic when employment levels and incomes across the country remained significantly lower than before.
"Without a further increase in funds, the programme will also be unable to meet its promise of providing 100 days of work to every household that demands it, as over 51 per cent of households employed under MGNREGA this year got work for 30 days or less, and less than 10 per cent were employed for more than 80 days," they said.
Meanwhile, even after several attempts to get the views of Joint Secretary Rohit Kumar, who is the concerned official to give the present status of MGNREGA funding in the Ministry of Rural Development, he remained incommunicado.
However, a senior official, on the condition of not being named, said that the job guarantee scheme should now be utilised for the creation of permanent assets so that there is no repeat work every year.
"A timeline has to be drawn as a huge amount of public money is spent on the implementation of MGNREGA and the output is almost nil. The works done under the job scheme need to have
sustainability. The objectives of
the scheme should be re-designed so that workers keep getting permanent employment by creating assets for the country," the official said.
As per the present guidelines, MGNREGA is a labour-intensive scheme, where 60 per cent of funds is spent on labour wage and 40 per cent of the funding is spent on materials. Since, as per the norms, machines are not allowed under the MGNREGA scheme, there is no possibility of construction of bridges on rivers under the scheme as it would require more material than labour. So, the possibility of including major construction works is negligible under the scheme.
Meanwhile, on fund shortage, the Rural Development Ministry, in a statement, has clarified that during the current financial year, so far more than 240 crore person-days has been generated as per the demand by the beneficiaries.
"Fund release towards wage and material is a continuous process. There has been an increase of more than 18 per cent of funds allocated for the current financial year in comparison to the previous financial year as a budget estimate. During the current FY, more than Rs 68,568 crore funds have been released so far for the implementation of the scheme in the states/UTs," it said.
"Whenever additional funds are required, the Ministry of Finance is requested to provide the funds. In the previous financial year, the Ministry allocated Rs 50,000 crore additional funds for the scheme over and above that of BE," it added.
Recently, the Ministry of Finance allocated additional funds of Rs 10,000 crore for MGNREGA as an interim measure. Further, allocation may be made upon assessment of demand during the Revised Estimate stage.
Views expressed are personal