In Kerala, MGNREGS faces an age hurdle
With a large number of young people from Kerala working abroad, the state has posed the challenge of an older workforce to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Over half of workers in Kerala are over 50 and the rate of completion of projects under the flagship rural job guarantee scheme is low, a Union rural development ministry audit found last month.
The women participation in MGNREGS, at the same time, in Kerala has been the highest in the country and has remained steady at about 90% over the past four years, according to the government data. It is much above the national average of 54.9. At least half of the jobs under the scheme have to be provided to women.
Officials say the high participation of women is a welcome, but the age factor of the workers remains a concern. In the current financial year, 29.7% of workers in Kerala are aged between 51 to 60 and another 22.04% between 61 to 80, according to a centralised muster roll of MGNREGS. In comparison, Uttar Pradesh has just 16.9% of workers in the 51-60 and just 5.7% in the 61-80 age bracket.
“This is a major issue in Kerala that 52.1% of its workers are in the senior category. But frankly, there is no remedy as locals are more attracted to jobs overseas. We do not see any improvement in the age factor of MGNREGS workers in Kerala in coming years as well,’’ said a Union rural development ministry official on condition of anonymity. “We have to carefully craft our strategies to maximize asset creations while ensuring suitable jobs for local people.”
As many as 1.6 million people from Kerala worked abroad in 2013, according to a study the Kerala government commissioned.
Officials said the Centre has advised Kerala to focus on improving the use of materials in projects and complete construction of more assets than just working on incremental projects. Under MGNREGS, states can spend up to 40% of the funds on materials and rest on wages.
Experts say use of more materials generally indicates more asset creations. Kerala spent 8.51% of its funds on materials in 2018-19, 10.25% in 2018-17, 7.21% in 2016-17 and just 2.29% in 2015-16. In the corresponding years, the national average of expenditure on materials stood at 29%, 29%, 26%, and 25%.
Another joint-secretary level officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the audit report, said the other problem in Kerala is that it is a much developed in terms of social and physical infrastructure than many north Indian states. “…while Uttar Pradesh or Bihar may need a large number of rural houses or anganwadi centres [which can be constructed under MGNREGS), Kerala does not have such a big requirement.”
Economist Himanshu, who uses one name and teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said MGNREGS is a wage generation programme. “Then, if Kerala is spending more money on wages, what is the problem? The MGNREGS law has not stipulated any fixed rate of expense for materials.”
He pointed out that under the MGNREGS, there are also many kinds of jobs related to water and soil conservation that do not require materials at all. “The government should stop its obsession about assets creation,” he said.