Only one-fourth of the 12.46 crore eligible households took up employment under the UPA's flagship (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) NREGA job scheme in 2012-13, a sharp decline from previous years. In 2009-10, the percentage was a much healthier 50%.
According to the government, this decline may not be such a bad thing and could be an indication of the success of various poverty alleviation schemes and increasing dynamism in India's rural economy.
Activists partly agree, but also accuse the government of not generating enough work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, even in places where the demand exists.
The world's biggest social security employment programme, introduced by UPA-1 in 2006, guarantees by law up to 100 days of unskilled manual employment to a household in a year. It was credited by many as one of the reasons the UPA came back to power in 2009.
But the scheme seems to have lost most of its sheen in UPA-2's term. The average number of days worked by a beneficiary has come down to 36 in 2012-13 from 54 in 2009-10. The proportion of projects completed has also fallen to 15% from 49% in the same corresponding periods.
But what came as a surprise to a parliamentary standing committee this week was that employment levels under NREGA fell more in states with significant BPL (below poverty line) populations, such as Bihar and West Bengal. The panel blamed this on "bottlenecks" in the implementation of the scheme, such as delay in wages and slow execution of projects by gram panchayats.
The rural development ministry, which administers the programme, attributed the decline to rise in agriculture wages, improvement in rural economy and the poor moving away from unskilled manual work.
"NREGA wages are unattractive… people are getting better money as agriculture workers," agreed George Mathew, chairman of the Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences. However, he also blamed panchayats for NREGA's poor performance.
Seeking a total revamp considering the changed ground realities, the committee has asked the government to widen the scope of the scheme by including semi-skilled and skilled work - a view partially accepted by rural development minister Jairam Ramesh.
The committee report also indicated that the programme was losing its social sting with the average number of work days in a year falling dramatically in states such as Bihar, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand in comparison to better-off states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. Many of these poor states - such as Bihar, Orissa, UP and Jharkhand - have been demanding special category status on account of acute backwardness and poverty.