In an interview to a national daily last week, Union rural development minister Birender Singh said that since the inception of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) the highest average number of days of work provided is 52, as against the promised 100. Saying that the demand is low, he said: “If people want only 30 days of work, how can you force them to do 100?” Mr Singh then went on to blame the states and the panchayats for failing to generate demand. Technically, the minister is right: MGNREGS is a demand-driven scheme.
Yet it is surprising that the minister gave such an explanation for low demand. Here are a few reasons for its dipping popularity: First, corruption and delays in payments. Travel to any part of rural India and you’ll hear stories of how people have worked on creating assets but have either not got their payments or have got them very late. Second, bogus enrolment. There have been so many cases of bogus enrolments that the rural development ministry plans to hold camps in villages to document, verify and match jobs created to plug the loopholes by the end of the year. Third, poor implementation by several states. As early as 2010, the Planning Commission had told the PMO that its assessment of the programme has found poor implementation in many states and that elite social groups in villages capture most of the job cards. Fourth, the scheme lost traction because the assets created, especially those related to drought-proofing, did not improve incomes because the structures were either built in the wrong places or of poor quality.
But in places where it has worked, the same scheme has been successful in increasing incomes. Reports suggest that it has made a significant contribution in raising disposable income among rural households. So instead of carping about the fact that people/panchayats/states are not demanding MGNREGS jobs, Mr Singh and his ministry must ensure that the glitches are erased and the scheme, which has enormous ecological and economic benefits, remains an attractive proposition.