The Cabinet on Wednesday took two decisions that focus on rural India: First, it approved an additional 50 days of work for farmers/workers under the MGNREGS over and above the 100 days in areas where drought or natural calamities have been notified; and, second, it okayed a plan to develop a cluster of ‘smart villages’ to transform rural areas to economically, socially and physically sustainable spaces. The two decisions provide an interesting snapshot of the gap that exists between reality — rural distress is spreading at an alarming pace and hence the need to extend the scheme — and the ambition for a 360-degree transformation.
The MGNREGS decision is a well-meaning one and will enable states to ensure additional wage employment to the poor in drought-affected areas, help tackle rural seasonal unemployment and reduce distress. But this measure could end up being a cosmetic one unless the government fixes the existing problems of the scheme, the key being delayed payments, which have lead to a decline in people claiming employment under the plan. In the last fiscal, households that completed 100 days of wage employment — the minimum guaranteed under the scheme — declined by 50%. It was 2.444 million in 2014-15 against 5.173 million in 2013-14 . The average number of days of employment provided per household nationally in 2012-13 was 46.2, but this fell to 39.99 in 2014-15.
The delay in payments of wages has happened due to budgetary and payment delivery constraints. The budget for the scheme declined from Rs 40,100 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 33,000 crore in 2013-14 during the second term of the UPA. In 2014-15, the allocation by the NDA increased marginally to Rs 34,000 crore; this was further raised to Rs 34,699 crore in the current budget.
Earlier this year, a government review showed that only 28.22% of wages were paid within the stipulated 15 days till December, indicating that 72% of the payments were not handed out in time. These delays continue despite several steps taken including fixing responsibilities on officials creating roadblocks for payments.
The tardy implementation of the plan forced the government recently to direct states to take steps to improve the implementation and outreach of the programme by running campaigns to popularise the scheme, complete the unfinished projects and ensure payments. While grand and expensive schemes like “smart villages” are attention-grabbers, what will finally make more political and economic sense is to run schemes like the MGNREGS, which has the capacity to transform the lives of the poorest of the poor in a major way, with much more thought and passion.
The author's views are personal.