In a first, Centre may allow machines for NREGS work
The Union government may allow the use of machines in work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) — a move that would mark the first relaxation of rules in the flagship job creation programme . According to two senior officials familiar with the matter, a proposal in this regard by three states — Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka — is under “active consideration”.
The officials, who asked not to be named, added that even if machines were allowed for selective use in certain work under the scheme, which guarantees 100 days of unskilled manual work a year to at least one member of every rural household, the wages of the workers would not be affected.
The MGNREGS, enacted in 2005 during the first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has not allowed work done by machines on the grounds that it substitutes manual labour, thereby defeating the essence of the scheme, which aims to provide alternative and guaranteed employment opportunities to people.
But, as HT reported on October 30, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have written to the Centre seeking relaxation of rules because large parts of these states have rocky terrain, making manual work difficult.
“We have received the proposals. We are actively considering proposals to allow machines in a very limited way in MGNREGS,” a senior rural development ministry official told HT on Wednesday.
Another government official said that the machines would not eat into the wages of beneficiaries. “The law stipulates that at least 60% of the MGNREGS fund should be used for wages. Currently, we spend about 74-75% in wages and the remaining money for materials,” he said.
“The rentals for excavators won’t be paid from the wages. It will be a part of the cost of materials. Even if the costs for materials go up by 1-2% for the machines, the wage rate will remain comfortably above the stipulated 60%, as envisaged by the law,” the second official added.
In the current year, MGNREGS has a budget of Rs 60,000 crore, out of which Rs50,000 crore has already been spent. The rural development ministry has asked for another Rs 20,000 crore as demand for work has surged amid signs of an economic slowdown.
This year, MGNREGS has an approved labour budget to generate 2.58 billion persondays under the scheme, the highest in five years. The scheme has 129 million active workers, and 56% of the work is done by women.
Some states have suggested that as more and more women are joining the scheme, machines can supplement their work, especially when it comes to heavy lifting or undertaking projects in rocky areas. All the three states, incidentally, have a high rate of women MGNREGS workers -- 40% in Madhya Pradesh, 60% in Andhra Pradesh, and 48% in Karnataka. The MGNREGS law stipulates that half of the jobs must go to women.
The first official cited above added that there was a possibility of giving the states more of a free hand in deciding how machines could be used. At a meeting of the Parliamentary standing committee on rural development on Tuesday, the issue of using machines in MGNREGS was discussed, according to one of its members.
Experts say that allowing machines for the scheme can be a complex subject. “There are possibilities that private contractors will exploit the situation. But it is also true that the blanket restrictions have been imposed in MGNREGS, not keeping in mind the wide variations in local conditions of different states of India. It’s true that some states have very difficult terrains for manual labour. So, some flexibility in rules is needed,” economist Prosenjit Bose told HT last week.
“The use of machines in MGNREGS goes against the very pith and substance of MGNREGA. It will be an illegal thing to do,” former rural development minister Jairam Ramesh said.
The officials suggested that if the proposal was accepted, the law might not be amended in Parliament but some of the rules could be changed through executive orders.