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New Delhi: The marginal increase in demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in September points towards a “much greater level of rural distress”, activists said on Tuesday. According to them, this is so since the rise in demand was recorded despite the Centre attempting to “artificially” suppress it.
Government data showed that household demand and individual categories under the said scheme were up more than 5% in September compared to August this year, The Economic Times reported on Monday.
As per the data, the September demand – which was 16.7 million under the household segment and 20.2 million for individuals – remained higher than the pre-COVID levels, even as the figures for the same month are lower than last year.
Activists said that the demand increment, observed after it fell for the past three consecutive months this year, is worrying, adding that the “real demand” could be much higher.
“Much of the demand under MGNREGA has been artificially suppressed as adequate funding is not allocated to the scheme at the start of the financial year, which eventually leads to a situation wherein the demand-driven nature of the scheme is not honoured,” Nikhil Dey, founder-member of the NGO Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan told NewsClick over the phone.
“This year is no different,” he claimed, adding, “the real demand could be much higher since funds to multiple States are also delayed.”
To be sure, in response to a question in August this year, the Union Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), which monitors the implementation of the jobs scheme in association with the state governments, informed the Rajya Sabha that West Bengal had received no funds from the Centre under MGNREGA for 2022-23. The reasons cited include the absence of social audits to ensure transparency in the implementation of the scheme.
However, West Bengal is not the only state where at the end of the second quarter of the financial year, funds under MGNREGA are delayed. Released by the Centre in four tranches, these funds were delayed in at least four other states, including Kerala, Telangana, Himachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, among others, as The Hindu reported last month.
Rural workers and social activists campaigning to press for increased budget allocation to MGNREGA have underlined in the past how lack of funds leads to wage delays which, subsequently, results in an “erosion of confidence” among the job-seekers under the scheme.
“Despite all of this, the month of September recorded an increase in demand, which only shows that there is a much greater level of rural distress within the country than what the Centre is ready to accept,” Dey said on Tuesday while further raising questions over the labour market stability.
Incidentally, the Union Finance Ministry cited the drop in month-on-month work demand under MGNREGA – the lowest in August in this fiscal – to claim that the unemployment rate in the rural areas was possibly reduced.
NewsClick had reported earlier on how this claim didn’t go well with the activists, who pointed to the figures published by the Mumbai-based Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), which showed that rural unemployment in August had surged – registering 7.7% in the country.
Though the unemployment rate in rural areas has fallen to 5.84% in September due to increased labour participation, the latest data show.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Anuj Goyal, a researcher with Peoples’ Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), demanded that the Centre announce additional budget allocation for MGNREGA to meet the work demand in the coming months. As per the scheme, at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year is provided to at least one member of every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
In their pre-budget note this year, the PAEG had calculated that the minimum required budget for MGNREGA for 2022-23 fiscal should be close to Rs 2.64 lakh crore, as against Rs 73,000 crore, which was announced by the Narendra Modi – led Central government.
“Despite soaring demand for employment, provisioning for MGNREGA remained significantly less over the past years,” Goyal said, adding, “rural workers continue to bear the brunt due to inadequacy of funds.”