Lok Sabha elctions 2019: Congress’s 150-day NREGA job pledge may be tough to fulfil
Thirteen years after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rolled out its flagship rural job guarantee scheme, the party promised a new version of the programme — MGNREGA 3.0 — in its election manifesto released on Tuesday. But experts called some of its promises a tall order.
“We will launch MGNREGA 3.0 [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] to address issues of water security, soil quality and similar issues that aggravate farmers’ distress,” the Congress’s poll paper said.
“The Prime Minister had mocked MGNREGA and said it is a bogus and useless scheme. Today, everyone knows how much it helped the country. So, now we want to guarantee jobs for 150 days, instead of 100 days, under the scheme,” Congress president Rahul Gandhi said, unveiling the party manifesto.
But experts believe the Congress might find it difficult to give up to 150 days of assured jobs. “No district so far has been able to provide all of its beneficiaries 100 days of jobs. Only a handful of blocks might have reached saturation,” said a senior official of the rural development ministry, who asked not to be named.
The official also explained that since the job scheme is the last source of income during distress, people always try to find more lucrative jobs, making it difficult for the government to reach saturation in the districts.
Government data shows that since 2006, barely 10-15% of the eligible families have got 100 days of work in a year. In 2018-19, out of the 5.25 crore households that worked under the scheme, just 49 lakh families completed 100 days. In the drought year of 2015-16, out of 4.8 crore families working under MGNREGA, just 48.47 lakh got full 100 days of jobs.
“In West Bengal, the best performing state in MGNREGA, districts could give beneficiaries 70-80 days of jobs,” the official cited above said. Another official pointed out that “it is more important to see that more families and people get some jobs instead of providing full 100 days of work to select families”.
Economist Abhirup Sarkar said there is also a problem of lack of appropriate work. “How long can people be asked to dig soil and do such works? The work is limited in MGNREGA,” said Sarkar, a professor with Indian Statistical Institute. While the Congress spoke about using MGNREGA labour in the restoration of waterbodies and the wasteland regeneration, official data shows that already the highest share of the rural job is used for water conservation-related work. Almost 42% of the MGNREGA work is used in this sector, government data shows. In the past few years, the government has also allowed MGNREGA labour in the construction of houses under the PM Awas Yojana, resulting in a steep rise in rural jobs.
The Congress also promised that it will use the flagship programme to build public assets such as primary health centres, classrooms and libraries. Government officials said public asset creation is given high priority in the scheme and the rate of completion of assets in MGNREGA was highest in 2018-19 since its rollout. Praveen Chakravarty, head of Congress’s data analytics department who was involved in preparing the manifesto, said, “Please remember that MGNREGA is a demand-based programme. What we said is that if in extreme distress, someone asks for more work, we will provide him or her and not deny him under the pretext of the existing law.”