UPA gives sops under MGNREGS to attract rural voters ahead of elections
Last ditch attempt
WITH most of its recent schemes struggling, a desperate UPA government is pinning its hopes on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) to win votes in 2014 elections. The government is overhauling the employment scheme that helped it return to power in 2009 for a reason. It touches the lives of over 55 per cent of rural voters in the country, which the UPA thinks, might compensate for the anti-incumbency drive against it. Experts, however, feel it may be a case of too little, too late for the UPA with the elections round the corner.
Polls on mind
Union Ministry of Rural Development initiated a series of steps between November and December 2013 to increase the demand of works and the outreach of the employment scheme.
Through these steps, the ministry has tried to plug the basic problem of people not enrolling under the scheme. There has been a consistent dip in the number of people applying to work under MGNREGS primarily because of delays in payments and lack of awareness. The employment programme is a demand driven scheme that guarantees at least 100 days of job in a year. The average working days generated under the scheme in the country last year was 36. The average was 54 days in 2009-10.
During the winter session of Parliament in last December, Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh introduced a penalty on officials who failed to pay the workers within 15 days. He also assured Rs 10,000 to all job card holders under the programme for constructing toilets. Earlier, there was an incentive of just Rs 4,500 for the same.
The government also notified on December 9 that MGNREGS workers who were employed for at least 50 days in the previous financial year are eligible to benefit from the Building and other Construction Workers Act. Under this Act, over 20 million households will be eligible for insurance schemes Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana (AABY) and Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), receive Rs 5,000 assistance for purchasing tools every third year, get training for upgradation of skill and 15 days maternity benefits.
There is also a provision for food basket worth Rs 200 per month for the aged and widows and a loan up to Rs 1 lakh for constructing houses. AABY is a social security scheme for rural households that provides monetary benefits of up to Rs 75,000 if the head of a family meets with an accident that renders him disabled or dead. Under RSBY, a below poverty line family gets health insurance coverage of up to Rs 30,000.
The government has also announced a nationwide campaign called Kaam Mango Abhiyan (KMA) from February 2. A pilot project of the campaign was started on November 18 in six districts where the rural ministry, along with state and district administrations, MGNREGS workers and civil society organisations, are trying to attract more people to the scheme. The six districts are Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh), Katihar (Bihar), Nashik (Maharashtra), West Singhbum (Jharkhand), Sundergarh (Odisha) and Raichur (Karnataka).
The campaign will reach out to gram panchayats to give people an opportunity to register their demand for MGNREGS work. It also plans to change the frequency of Rozgar Diwas from once a year to every month. Rozgar Diwas is observed under MGNREGS once a year when people get to directly speak with officials about their grievances.
Not just political parties, but even MGNREGS supporters say the recent changes to the scheme might not help UPA. “All these efforts do little to help Congress,” says Sanjay Singh, political scientist with CSDS and national coordinator of NES 2009. “It can help if other factors are constant with 2009. At present, the Congress has nothing it can take to the public,” adds Singh.
An official from the rural development ministry admits MGNREGS stopped working sooner than expected due to poor implementation. “While it helped UPA in 2009, it should look at other options this time,” says the official.
Experts also say that the recent initiatives do not offer anything new. “The campaign is just recording demands made by the people, documenting their grievances and offering participatory redressal on Rozgar Diwas. This was already ingrained in the scheme but was not in practice,” says Ashish Ranjan of Jan Jagaran Shakti Sangathan of Bihar.
Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan says, “Only registration of demand and new job card applications cannot change much when rural schemes are reeling under fund crisis. It cannot change the mood of voters.”
Reetika Khera, a development economist, says, “It is a fact that MGNREGS is in bad shape and needs some impetus for revival. But the scheme would hardly increase the support base of UPA in four months,” she says.
BJP spokesperson Prakash Javdekar says, “People have already rejected the Congress in the recent Assembly elections. Their revival plan of MGNREGS would fall flat in Parliament election in face of price rise.” He adds whatever the Congress does now would be just promises as they cannot be rolled out before the elections.
Even the Congress maintains it is not an electoral effort. Congress spokesperson Bhakta Charan Das says, “The recent decisions are to fix some defects in the programme.” Basudev Acharya of CPI(M) says, “Even after eight years, it has provided 100 days of work to hardly eight per cent people.”
While experts believe the changes to MGNREGS will have little impact on the poll outcome, it remains to be seen if UPA is able to deliver on its promises.
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