One of the most widely discussed rural initiatives from India has been the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) which provides a guarantee of employment in various tasks of rural development. While it can provide very genuine benefits to workers and peasants while carrying out highly useful tasks ( like water conservation), in practice its implementation has been increasingly marred by less than adequate budget allocation resulting in availability of much less than legally assured employment, low wages and long delays in payment of these wages.
During September 21-23 several demonstrations, rallies and public meetings involving NREGA workers and their organizations are being held in various parts of India. This mobilization is taking place on the basis of a call given by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, (NSM) , a collective that works with NREGA workers across the country. According to the NSM around Rs. 2800 crore ( one crore=10 million) are pending from the central government for this financial year and Rs. 1984 crore from the previous financial year. The budget allocation was so inadequate that nearly 77% got spent in the first five months of the financial year.
NREGA workers have suffered much due to long delays in getting wages which go against legal provisions. Following the 3-day protests the NSM will be submitting a memorandum to the government for important reforms at implementation levels.
NREGA enacted about 16 years back was widely regarded as a very important achievement of the UPA/Congress government. At a time of the state withdrawing from such responsibilities in many countries, this was seen internationally too as a very important initiative, particularly in the Global South.
The initial response of the NDA/BJP regime towards NREGA was discouraging, but better counsel prevailed and realizing its importance this was continued. During COVID its importance was particularly acknowledged by almost everyone in terms of its ability to provide an important means of survival in very difficult times when so many migrant workers were returning to villages in desperate conditions. Increased allocation for NREGA became a very important component of the special COVID package announced by the government in financial year 2020-21.
As a result the NREGA allocation peaked to Rs. 111,000 crore this year. There was demand as well as expectation that the increased 2020-21 allocation will be retained but this was reduced to just Rs. 73,000 crore. As anticipated, this led to extreme problems of unmet demand and delayed wages, causing much distress.
So later in the year the government had to allocate additional Rs. 25,000 crore, taking the total allocation to Rs. 98,000 crore in 2021-22 Thus even the increased or revised allocation this year was lower than the amount spent in the previous year, while the delay in increasing the allocation led to avoidable problems of delayed wages. At the end of the financial year substantial dues of wages, or material payments or administrative expenses remained.
This year at the time of the presentation of budget again a reduction relative to last year’s revised estimate was made by allocating only Rs. 73,000 crore. A calculation made by a monitoring group People’s Action for Employment Guarantee ( PAEG) revealed the very uncomfortable reality that if the same number of people apply for work as in the previous year , this allocation will be adequate to provide only 21 days work in a year, as compared to the legal entitlement of 100 days.
In this context it is also useful to look at the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on rural development schemes in mid-March this year. The Parliamentary Committee has mentioned that there was corruption in the implementation of NREGA as well as delays in wage payment. The Committee spoke of lesser money reaching ‘genuine’ workers due to corruption. Another problem mentioned by the Committee related to late uploading of muster rolls which also resulted in delays in wage payment. A lot of problems were related to lack of timely availability of adequate budget.
The rule-based payment system of NREGA is to make the payment within 15 days, and for any delay beyond this there is provision for adding compensatory additional payment but this is seldom given.
Clearly there is urgent need for setting up a proper system of timely wages in NREGA and for ensuring a proper budget for this.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.