COVID-19 rural crisis: Why MGNREGA needs a harder push

MGNREGA workers across the country on June 29 staged peaceful demonstration, raised demands for higher benefits and wages

By Debmalya Nandy
Published: Sunday 05 July 2020
Representative image. MGNREGA workers across the country on June 29 staged peaceful demonstration and raised demands for higher benefits and wages. Photo: Prashant Ravi

The nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) left Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA) workers in the lurch. Thousands such workers, facing an economic crisis, have demanded an increase in the annual guarantee of work to 200 days per person.

The workers from across the country on June 29,2020 raised demands for higher benefits and reserving the rights for local planning by Gram Sabha. Thousands of workers from 108 districts across 12 workers observed the day as ‘NREGA Adhikar Diwas’ and staged peaceful demonstrations from their worksites.

They also demanded that the daily wage rate be commensurate with the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission and asked for an increase to Rs 600 a day.

The demonstrations were staged under the banner of MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha with the aim to convey their demands to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They are planning to submit a memorandum addressed to him soon.  

The unorganised workforce has been pushed to poverty and millions are facing starvation. While the Union government has taken a timely step in allocating supplementary budget of Rs 40,000 crore, the arrangement is inadequate to compensate for the loss of income faced by rural families.

The allocation is merely useful to run the programme without a cash crunch for the next few months. But it is neither adequate to meet the current demands for work with influx of migrants returning to their homes, nor does it solve the purpose of additional income generation since wage rates and workdays guaranteed under the programme remain the same.

According to Section 16(1) of MGNREGA, schemes are to be implemented as per the recommendations of the Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha and Ward Sabha. But MGNREGA works have instead been executed according to the priorities of the government.

By getting MGNREGA workers to work under schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swachh Bharat and Construction of Anganwadi Centres, the government is getting assets such as houses and toilets constructed, using workers as a tool and denying them minimum wages.

The programme has been systematically crippled in the last six years with inadequate budgetary allocations, long wage delays and non- payments. On the top of it, a centralised technology linked implementing mechanism has wrecked the local accountabilities and participation of the elected gram panchayat representatives in the programme.

 Let us now look at the demands placed by MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha:

At least 200 days of employment guarantee for each adult

The workers demanded 200 days of employment guarantee per person, terming the current provision of 100 days per household as inadequate in the current scenario when other employment opportunities have become limited.

Increase wages to Rs 600 a day

The Seventh Pay Commission fixed a monthly minimum wage of Rs 18,000 per worker. Therefore, the daily NREGA wages should also be at least Rs 600 per worker.

Honour plans made by Local Gram Sabhas / Ward Sabhas

The administration should not dictate the kind of schemes to be taken up under the programme; the local decentralised planning exercises should be valued and honoured for selection of works. The Union government should immediately direct their officials to refer to the plans made by respective Gram Sabhas and prioritise those schemes. 

The MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha also demanded that sufficient budget be allotted to meet the demand of increased guarantee of work and revision of wages.

The allocation for MGNREGA over the past years have been inadequate to meet the actual demands at ground and workers have been almost treated as bonded labourers who have been denied even a minimum wage which is a right of the workers. 

The Pradhan Mantri Gareeb kalyan Rozgaar Abhiyan recently announced by the Centre is expected to cover 116 high migrant “districts of six states” has no additional budgetary allocation. It is simply a convergence of 12 line departments to execute existing asset generation programmes belonging to 25 public works categories.

It is derisive how the government is trying to project a convergence of existing schemes as a fresh scheme worth Rs 50,000 crore. It is also not clear why government is only focusing on 116 districts for the execution of schemes while they need to be implemented in all rural parts of the country.

This underlines that the Union government wants to attract political mileage out of a severe economic crisis. This shows the serious lack of intent to create real job opportunities in rural areas.

So, what are the rural workers left with?

A same old MGNREGA with no additional employment opportunities, ridiculously low wage rates which are far below the minimum wages of the states and an administrative system for execution that has always failed to live up to their expectations.

We have already seen a decline in MGNREGA workday generation in June. If the official website is to be believed, In May 2020, 3.61crore households demanded work under the programme as compared to 2.49 crore households during the same period in 2019.

The actual workdays generation in May 2020 is about 57 crore, which is 20 crore more than what was achieved in the same month last year. Surprisingly, in June, the demand increased significantly as 4.37 crore families applied for jobs under MGNREGA. The actual person days generation has been only 38 crore — far less than the last month and only 6 crore more than the figures of June 2019.

This implies that while the demand for MGNREGA work is only increasing, administrative arrangements are not reciprocating adequately to the needs of people.

Low benefits and uncertainties due to complex procedural glitches will soon create fatigue and hopelessness among workers.

The ruling party has been making valiant efforts to corroborate their altered stance on MGNREGA, which was once called a “monumental failure” on the floor of the parliament by the current PM. At a time when MGNREGA is seen as the greatest safety net for rural workers, the government should strengthen their rights to boost rural job creation instead of trying to leverage political benefits out of it.

Debmalya Nandy is associated with NREGA Sangharsh Morcha 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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