Within three years of its nationwide implementation, the UPA government's flagship rural jobs programme has shown a decline in work provided. The downtrend is in contrast to surveys showing that more people are becoming aware of the right to work.
The number of households demanding work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in 2010-11 was 2.8 million more than in 2009-10. But the number of workdays had dipped by nearly 10%.
Planners and activists offer divergent explanations for this.
A section of policymakers and watchers say there is depression in demand - fewer people are asking for all 100 days of work, mandated by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But another section of activists and economists suggest the scheme has failed to deliver jobs to those who have asked for them.
According to MGNREGS data, the number of mandays generated in 2010-11 was 2.57 billion, 260 million fewer (9.2%) than in 2009-10.
The right-to-work programme had generated 2.83 billion mandays in 2009-10, an increase of 31% over 2008-09 - the first year of implementation in all the districts of the country.
From 2009-10 to 2010-11, the number of households availing themselves of 100 days' work went down from 7.08 million to 5.56 million.
In about 12 states including some bigger and better-performing ones like Rajasthan, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, there is a direct decline in demand in 2010-11 over 2009-10. Countrywide, growth in demand for work slowed last fiscal.
"We are analysing the reasons but inputs from states suggest it is due to good rainfall we had in 2010-11 over the previous drought year," said an official of the ministry of rural development, which implements the Rs 40,000 crore programme.
Activists differ, however.
"Rainfall can be only part of the reason for the decline," says Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.
"While prices of essential commodities are going up, the actual wages paid under the MGNREGS is coming down. In Rajasthan, the average works out to be about Rs 80 a day. Why would anyone go for such wages, which in most cases are received after weeks or maybe months?" asked Dey, a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, a body constituted under the MGNREGA.
MGNREGS activists also point out village functionaries are not interested in taking up rural works because social audit, now introduced, has stopped malpractices such as faking muster rolls and showing workers who did not exist.
Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says: "The MGNREGS provided rural labour with bargaining power, forcing farmers to pay more now for getting labour. There is pressure on states to suspend it to facilitate agriculture."
The rural development ministry wrote to the states, warning them not to suspend MGNREGS works during the kharif season.