We do not need systems that alienate people from work and give further control to bureaucracy and frontline functionaries who are responsible for large-scale corruption
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has been plagued by lack of funding, delayed payments and inadequate work. This has impacted the lives of the country’s rural population.
The sizeable MGNREGA allocations in the pandemic-hit financial year 2020-2021 and in 2021-22 helped millions of rural households earn from the schemes and cope with their economic vulnerabilities.
Also read: MGNREGA: Less than a million people got 100 days of work in first 7 months of this financial year
However, this financial year’s inadequate budget allocation (2022-2023) has again put the workers in a spot. The work availability is deficient and those who have worked under different schemes are made to wait for a long time to get their wages.
The COVID-19 pandemic showed the significant role played by MGNREGA in supporting rural households.
In fiscal years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the total expenditures incurred in the programme were Rs 1.11 lakh crore and Rs 1.06 lakh crore, respectively, according to government data.
While 111.9 million workers from 75.5 million households worked in 2020-21, 106.2 million workers from 72.6 million families worked under MGNREGA in 2021-2022.
Also read: Rural unemployment in central India: Why Adivasi communities are worst-hit
However, in 2022-2023, the overall budget allocations have been reduced to Rs 73,000 crore, reducing the scope of employment and the possibility of creating quality rural assets.
As a result, only 73.5 million workers from 53 million households could currently avail of MGNREGA work.
Even when the accessibility is so low, the budget utilisation is quite high, resulting in a significant delay in processing wages from the central government.
Nearly Rs 7,700 crore is pending to be disbursed( including both wage and material) from the central government, according to the government’s response in a parliamentary session held recently.
Centre has not released wages to West Bengal since December last year, which means the workers are unpaid for more than a year now. It looks like the central government has been particularly unkind to the state of West Bengal.
The current equation between the Bhartiya Janata party, which is ruling at the centre and Trinamool congress, the ruling party in West Bengal, is well known to everyone and this hints at a vendetta politics being played by the central government.
The workers, as a result, are made to suffer. Out of Rs 4,447 crore pending wages, West Bengal’s share is Rs 2,744 crore, according to the response filed by the government in Parliament.
Nearly 170 million households have formally registered with MGNREGA (households with job cards). Out of the 170 million households, around 103 million have worked in MGNREGA in the last three financial years. These households are known as active job card holders.
The average number of workdays at the household level hovered around 50 days in the last two financial years. The current per person per day cost for running the programme is Rs 297( including wage, material and administrative expenses).
The cost will at least go up to Rs 310 in the next financial year, with wage revisions happening in March. Keeping this in mind, the government must allocate at least Rs 2 lakh crore to start with, even to ensure that 103 million active job card-holding families can get work for at least 60 days.
More households are expected to register during the next financial year.
The government has recently constituted a committee headed by former bureaucrat Amarjeet Sinha to recommend structural reforms in MGNREGA.
The committee would closely look at the root causes of current discrepancies and leakages persisting in implementing the schemes and is expected to advise on streamlining leakage-free implementation in the future.
While it is a welcome move to carry out thorough processes for understanding gaps in the system, the problems are well-known to everyone. Corruption in government schemes and programmes results from administrative lapses and malpractices. It requires stringent and consistent monitoring and review through independent agencies.
The Act provisions for social audits by independent agencies, which must be strengthened across all states.
What we have seen in the past does not show the government’s intent to strengthen decentralised independent monitoring. Rather it randomly picks a few states, sends central teams there and stops fund release, citing examples of local corruption.
The leakages in MGNREGA funds are not limited to a handful of states or districts; it is widespread and systemic. Periodic central monitoring does not solve this. Rather, it kills the spirit of the programme by diminishing the idea of decentralised governance — a fundamental idea of the programme.
Moreover, the non-release of funds to states further slows down the implementation and demotivates the genuine workers who are made to wait long for their rightful wages.
The central government should ensure that social audit agencies are constituted in all states and are independently registered as a society.
In the past, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana had demonstrated robust social audit processes. However, in most states, the audits have been either weakened or entirely stopped due to pressure from influential local elites and political leaders.
We need to establish a strong and consistent social audit system that timely reports on actions taken and recoveries against malpractices.
The government should take proactive steps to establish a robust system of decentralised monitoring and actions by regularly strengthening independent social audits rather than promoting a culture of random, centralised monitoring that does not address the systemic bottlenecks.
Complex administrative processes and technological interventions should be removed to make operations transparent. Accountability should be promoted through decentralised governance mechanisms.
The newly introduced digital attendance system at the worksite, National Mobile Monitoring System, further complicates the operations on the ground.
We do not need systems that alienate people from work and give further control to bureaucracy and frontline functionaries who have been the main players behind large-scale corruption at worksites.
Instead, the government should equip Gram Panchayats for decentralised participatory planning, sanctioning schemes and making payments.
The true realisation of decentralised governance can only be achieved by making Gram Panchayats more competent through power devolutions.
Simple decentralised processes using user-friendly technologies can solve implementation challenges, while established social audit systems can bring transparency and accountability in governance and address corruption.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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