Condemning the BJP-led Central government for allegedly not disbursing salaries for MGNREGA workers in Tamil Nadu for nine weeks, Virudhunagar Member of Parliament Manickam Tagore on Sunday said that this has impacted around 91 lakh workers.—The New Indian Express, Monday, October 23, 2023
Unpaid MGNREGA beneficiaries of Goa forced to borrow money and plead for work.— O Heraldo, Monday, October 23, 2023
Delays in the disbursement of MGNREGA scheme wages in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur have led to severe financial stress, people here say, with some being forced to borrow money from private lenders at high interest rates. —The Hindu, Wednesday, September 13, 2023
On its part, the government says that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is a “demand driven wage employment programme and fund release to States and Union Territories (UTs) is a continuous process” and that the Centre “is making funds available keeping in view the demand for work”. It has also been reiterated that the Ministry of Rural Development “releases funds to the States/UTs on the basis of agreed to Labour Budget (LB), opening balance, pending liabilities of the previous year, if any, and overall performance. The Ministry seeks additional fund for MGNREGS as and when required for meeting the demand for work on the ground”.
While briefing the media on ‘9 Years of Achievements in Rural Development’ in New Delhi on October 20, Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh reassured that there is no deficit of funds under MGNREGA. He said that the finance ministry had been approached for additional funds under the scheme and they would be sanctioned soon.
However, Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Politburo member, claimed, “The budget for MGNREGA is dismal and granting less funds has become an instrument of the Modi government to eliminate the rights granted by the law.”
She alleged, “Average work days are below 50% of the guarantee.” MGNREGA, passed in 2005, is a demand-driven scheme that guarantees 100 days of unskilled work per year for every rural household seeking it.
Calling the Centre’s fund allocation “unjust”, “an assault on the rights of rural workers”, and “a step towards killing the programme,” Nikhil Dey of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha pointed out that the National Mobile Monitoring System application for registering workers’ attendance was an “anti-worker intervention”. The new app-based attendance marking system, which is also linked to the payment of wages through the Aadhaar-based payment system (ABPS), was made mandatory from January 2023.
Karat wrote to the rural development minister on August 30, “As one who was actively involved in the finalisation of the Act and the clauses regarding the rights of workers, it is a matter of deep concern that workers’ rights for demand based work are being compromised.”
Quoting a government press release in June which assured that the ministry was not insisting on ABPS, and instead offered greater flexibility, the former MP mentioned the above highlighted news reports that pointed to the contrary.
“However, a most revealing survey conducted by an organisation reported in The Hindu, August 30, 2023, shows that out of the ‘total 26 crore job holders, 41.1% are still not eligible for this mode of payment. From five states with the largest number of active job holders, 1.2 crore workers will not be eligible for payments as they do not have ABPS accounts’,” she wrote.
“The survey also shows on the basis of an analysis of data recorded in the central database of the government that there is statistically very little difference between ABPS and normal account transactions as far as the amount of time taken for payments is concerned or as far as percentage of rejections is concerned. In other words, while so far there is no significant benefit, there is certainly evidence of significant losses for workers,” observed Karat.
She also mentioned that from her interaction with workers at various MGNREGS sites, she found that women, who comprise the majority of MGNREGS workers in many states, have been particularly affected.
“In my interaction with women workers, I found that the SORs and the piece rates decided are extremely difficult to complete. In the current situation as far as women’s work norms are concerned MNREGA sites are illustrations of the extraction of female labour at low rates to create public assets. There has been no ministry-initiated, recent time-use surveys on MNREGA sites. Earlier in many states, work norms for women were decided after such surveys. This is an urgent requirement,” she contended.
Schedule of Rates (SOR) is a document in which the details of rates of unskilled labour, semi-skilled labour, skilled labour, material rates and conveyance rates, which are to be adopted, are published every year. “I’m yet to get a response—except a formal acknowledgement of the letter received,” Karat claimed.
On October 6, The Hindu reported, “Six months into the financial year, the flagship rural employment programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), has run out of funds and as per the statistics put out by the Ministry on its website is running a deficit of ₹6,146.93 crore.”
It added: “An amount of ₹60,000 crore was sanctioned for the scheme for 2023-24, which was 18% lower than the ₹73,000-crore budget estimates and 33% lower than the ₹89,000 crore revised estimates for the financial year 2022-23.”
In early November, it was learnt that the finance ministry has released around ₹10,000 crore in “urgent assistance to meet unexpected enhanced expenditure under” the MGNREGS. This is until the first batch of supplementary demands for grants is approved by Parliament at its next session, reported The Economic Times, quoting an unnamed senior official.
In this year’s Budget (for 2023-24), ₹60,000 crore was sanctioned for the scheme which was about 18% less than the budget estimate of ₹73,000 crore. Also, as reported by The Hindu, the amount sanctioned was 33% below the ₹89,000 crore revised estimates for the financial year 2022-23.
The Ministry of Rural Development dismissed media reports that cuts may affect the scheme as “far from truth”. In a statement on February 3, it reiterated that the MGNREGS “is a demand driven Scheme. Any household demanding employment shall be provided at least 100 days of unskilled manual work in a financial year in accordance with the Scheme” and asserted that “if an applicant for employment under the Scheme is not provided such employment within fifteen days of receipt, he shall be entitled to a daily unemployment allowance”.
The release of funds from the Centre also depends on its relation with a particular state. For example, funds for West Bengal have been “stopped from March 9, 2022 as per provision of Section 27 of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 due to non-compliance of directives of Central Government,” the ministry had announced in a statement last month.
Similarly, the Central government had warned Kerala that it may withhold funds if the state failed to adhere to the drone surveillance mandate for the MGNREGS.
Meanwhile, a government-constituted committee to examine various factors affecting wage employment, its demands and to bring in reforms in the MGNREGS has suggested substantial increase in wages and budgets.