On April 9, under intense pressure and criticism from many quarters including the Supreme Court, the government announced the release of its first tranche of funds for 2016-17 of Rs 12,230 crore for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Welcome as this relief will be, it is far too little and much too late. It is only enough to clear last year’s dues, which exceed a staggering Rs 12,000 crore. It fails, therefore, to restore the MGNREGA to a position where it can suitably help people fight one of the worst droughts India has faced in decades. It also fails to meet the government’s legal obligations under the MGNREGA on at least five counts.
The MGNREGA is a legal guarantee outlined under Section 3(1) of the Act, which states that the government shall “... provide to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work not less than 100 days of (such) work in a financial year”.
The April 9 release is in violation of the government’s own master circular that states in Section 7.1.2:
“First tranche is to be released to States/Districts in the month of April. The quantum of 1st Tranche is based on the number of person days projected by the State/UT for the first six months of the year up to September in the Labour Budget…..the first tranche is released after adjusting unspent balance available with the districts/States and considering the pending liabilities, if any”.
The MGNREGA website shows that at the end of 2015-16, 25 out of the 29 states in India had a negative balance and had no money to even pay the outstanding dues, leave alone open new works. With no work and no wages, it is obvious that there is going to be a resultant escalation in malnutrition, endemic hunger, and distress migration.
The entitlement of compensation for delayed payments has also been violated. The government owed workers Rs 216.5 crore in delayed wage compensation. Less than 2% was paid amounting to Rs 3.4 crore. Nearly 90% of the declared dues were rejected by programme officers citing “insufficient funds”.
A crucial entitlement under the MGNREGA rests on paying a ‘minimum wage’. Supreme Court judgments have declared that the non-payment of minimum wages amounts to forced labour, and is therefore unconstitutional. Nevertheless, on March 29 this year, the ministry of rural development has once again notified sub-minimum wage rates for MGNREGA workers in several states, including the drought-affected states of Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha.
In a drought year, announcements were made enhancing the 100 days, with an additional 50 days of employment. No extra money was provided, and ironically, the notification itself has lapsed on March 31 just as the drought is peaking.
The fact is that since 2010, the MGNREGA allocation in real terms has shrunk to less than half, and stands at 0.26% of GDP for 2016-17. That the MGNREGA can in fact help people fight poverty and hunger remains unchallenged. Work gives both wages and dignity. It can help people in distress tide over the drought without completely caving in. But the MGNREGA cannot run on rhetoric and insufficient funds. The government must obey the law.
Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are are social activists working in Rajasthan and former members of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, MGNREGA
The views expressed are personal