Every time there is a crisis in the countryside, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2005, has come to the rescue of the rural poor. The 100 days of assured employment have not only saved some of the poorest in the country from starvation, it has also helped in building enduring community-level assets such as ponds, bunds (retaining walls), food grain storage, micro irrigation canals, among others.
The uniqueness of NREGA is that it’s a demand-driven employment scheme. It means that when the rural poor migrate to cities in search of better wages, the demand for such work comes down, which in turn brings down the expenditure. However, when there is a crisis such as that triggered by the Covid-19 lockdowns, which engineered reverse migration, the demand for NREGA work goes up, hence expenditure also goes up. There are several studies—both Indian and international—that acknowledge the role of the scheme in reducing rural poverty. More importantly, women have been the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme, since it allows them flexibility of working hours.
About a year ago, the government decided to introduce an app-based attendance system for payment of wages, using the Aadhaar Payment Bridge System (APBS). Though the idea of introducing a technology-based solution for better accountability might be laudable, its practicality is questionable. Given the poor mobile connectivity and low data speeds in rural India, uploading proof of work using the National Mobile Monitoring System through smartphones has become an onerous task. As a result, workers are not paid their wages owing to lack of attendance data and proof of work. When the gravity of the situation came to a head, NREGA workers from across India, under the banner of the NREGA Sangharsh Manch, launched a protest in the heart of Delhi at Jantar Mantar for their voices to be heard. The planned 100-day agitation is underway, though there are no indications yet of the government coming to the negotiating table to find an acceptable solution.
This month’s cover story gives voice to the NREGA workers and their demands, the increasing gap between expenditure and budgetary outlay, resulting in non-payment of wages by the states, and also the government’s outlook.
In this issue we have also attempted to initiate a discussion on other important issues such as the extensive crop damage due to unseasonal rains and its impact on food security and prices, the increasing consumption of coal despite the government’s clean energy thrust, and the problems of rising urban emissions.