COVID-19: Centre’s relief package an eyewash for NREGA workers

The Rs 1.7 lakh crore package by the Centre has nothing for the 13 million NREGA workers

By Debmalya Nandy
Published: Monday 13 April 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an infamous remark about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Parliament in 2015, calling it the “living monument” of failure of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. His message was loud and clear — NREGA will be kept alive to portray the blunders of the Congress.

Five years down the line, the Union government’s treatment of the scheme has not been any different. Take its treatment of the scheme in times when the country is battling the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Wage rates are abysmally low and access to work and regular payments has been a challenge for workers. And millions of rural workers are paying a huge price for the Centre's apathy.   

The distress of millions of migrant workers stuck in different cities in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown has proved the government wasn’t prepared for the unprecedented move. The Centre’s apathy towards rural workers has showed it is ignorant of the massive economic fallout of the lockdown on the most vulnerable section of the society.

To make matters worse, delusive information and misleading interpretation of data have been commonplace in the implementation of the scheme in the last six years. 

On the one hand, insufficient fund allocation and perpetual delays in releasing funds by the Centre have led to extensive delays in wage payments. On the other, negligible monitoring of NREGA on the ground and lack of sufficient social audits has diminished the spirit of the scheme.

The Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package announced in response to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing for the 13 million NREGA workers. It is beyond doubt that NREGA workers belong to the most vulnerable sections of the society and depriving them of basic necessities at this hour of crisis can be disastrous.

Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, during her announcement of the relief package, had laid out some measures:

  • MGNREGS daily wage rate increased by Rs 20 (Rs 202 from Rs 182). This will result in a Rs 2,000 increase in annual income of workers under the schemes
  • NREGA workers can work on ground by following the central advisory for maintaining social distancing

Later, the rural development ministry announced that they were releasing Rs 4,431 crore to different states to clear the arrears of wages and materials under different NREGA schemes. It added that that all pending payments will be made till April 10, 2020.

The announcement made by the finance minister only shows that planning and implementation of NREGA — considered the largest rural job programme in the world — was shoddy.

Practically, no additional resources have been allocated to NREGA — the wage increment was done as part of routine yearly process of wage notification.

The revised wages were notified three days before the relief package was announced and bore no connection with the additional emergency measures. The increment of wages are abysmally low and  far less than agricultural minimum wages of respective states.

While the government pointed out that stringent action will be taken against people propagating fake news, it might also spare a moment to scrutinise its own deeds. The Rs 20 increase in NREGA wages is nothing but a deception.

According to economist and social scientist Jean Dreze, the increase was the 2019-20 wage bill divided by total person days of employment. In other words, an average of wages actually received rather than the average of notified wages.

It was lower than the weighted-average of state-wise notified wages for 2019-20 (Rs 200), possibly because workers often work on a piece-rate basis. No one knows what NREGA employment levels are going to be in 2020-21, so the average increase in wages by Rs 20 is arbitrary.

The finance minister assumed that all households will complete 100 days of work and hence earn 20 x 100 = Rs 2,000 more households.

This is largely due to administrative negligence causing unavailability of work and extensive delays in payments.

It is shameful that in the time of such a crisis the government has intentionally obfuscated facts for political gains.

As on March 28, 2020, the total pending NREGA wages was at Rs 6,000 crore. Pending material payments have mounted to Rs 9,700 crore.

The relief of Rs 4,431 crore towards clearing arrears would mean that a significant amount of the budget of financial year (FY) 2020-21 will have to be spent on clearing arrears of FY 2019-20. In a seemingly cunning move, the Centre announced the release of Rs 4,431 crore while shrouding the fact that the amount will be inadequate to settle all dues.

The most sensitive move at this hour will be to release all money pending across states and give them full compensation for delay in payments.

The finance minister’s advisory on social distancing norms for NREGA isn’t pragmatic as working in NREGA involves processes with significant physical proximity. Many state governments have decided to suspend NREGA work temporarily, which is a relief.

In such a scenario, it is imperative that the government pays full notified minimum wage for each day of the lockdown.

As thousands of migrant workers returned to their native villages, many more will need work under NREGA over the next year. In short, workers’ dependence on NREGA for survival and coping with immediate stress will increase manifold in the country.

In such extraordinary circumstances, the number of days of work per rural household should not be limited to 100 days per year. Categories of permissible work should also be expanded to include specific individual benefit schemes and construction of community assets. 

The war against COVID-19 cannot be won without having adequate preparations to safeguard the most marginalised of the country. We may be able to keep the virus away by enforcing a forced lockdown, but will we want to do it at the cost of people starving to death? 

Unlike the affluent and the middle class, the poor have an additional burden — of fighting with hunger and distress. Let’s not make it worse for them than it already is. 

(With inputs from Sakina Dhorajiwala)

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