Lack of budget, high demand slow MGNREGS

Deletions keep millions jobless despite the scheme seeing highest demand in a decade

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 05 October 2023
Representative photo: iStock__

Leaving aside the COVID-19 years, the demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has surged to its highest in a decade in 2023-2024, according to government data.

However, the programme is reeling under a severe budget crisis due to the lowest budget assigned during the current financial year. While nearly 54 million people demanded work in 2023-2024, only 48 million workers could access it.

The scheme has over 150 million registered workers. However, almost 52 million workers lost their job cards in 2022-2023. While addition and deletion are part of the programme process, the deletions have peaked by 247 per cent compared to the previous year.

Moreover, only 40 per cent of the registered workers are eligible for payments under the Aadhar-based payment system (ABPS) mandated by the government. ABPS requires workers to link Aadhar cards with their bank accounts. Without this, they will not be able to receive wages despite completing work.

NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a group that works for the welfare of the rural population, said according to the data, only 4 per cent of the central government budget is available for the programme. 

Lavanya Tamang from Libtech India, a research group, said wages amounting to Rs 2,500 crore in 2023-2024 are yet to be disbursed, adding to the already piled up Rs 18,000 crore.

“With another six months to go and unemployment at all-time high, how will the rural population get work and earn wages?” she asked.

Tamang said with the winter session pending, it is unlikely that a major chunk of the budget will be released for the programme. “It is observed that the government allocates an average of Rs 10,000 crore as supplementary budget. It will be inadequate to meet the pending wages and job demands,” she added.

The Centre, in its 2023-24 fiscal budget, allotted Rs 60,000 crore for the programme against the pre-budget estimates of Rs 89,400 crore. The allocation of 0.198 per cent of the gross domestic product is the lowest in the history of the programme which started in 2005.

Speaking with Down To Earth (DTE), activist Nikhil Dey, after the Union budget, said the allocation would only provide 17 days of work against the guarantee of 100 days under the scheme. Management Information System data shows that only 668,585 workers have been able to complete 100 days of work to date.

Praveen Chakravarty, chairman of the Congress Party’s Data Analytics, in a recent media report, said the high figures indicate millions of families are reeling under distress.

High demand for work means these families had no source of income other than resorting to bare minimum wages offered under the MGNREGS “unemployment insurance scheme”.

Poor and erratic rainfall influenced by El Nino and climate change has added to the woes. DTE analysis showed that the demand has spiked in areas with deficit rainfall. 

LibTech India analysis also saw the budget running negative in major states. The negative budget on the ground indicates that no work is sanctioned for workers and no wage is deposited in bank accounts for the work completed.

According to the act, the workers should receive work within 15 days of demanding work. The worker becomes eligible for unemployment allowance if the work is not given. After receiving and completing work, the worker must get wages within 15 days or compensation for each day of delayed payment.

However, the reality is entirely different. Gram Devi from Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh told media on October 4 that her wages have been pending for over 80 days now. 

“We receive Rs 230 as daily wages for MGNREGS work and no work has been assigned to us. Our village has been demanding work and a gaushala (cowshed) construction was sanctioned. However, we were later informed that the money has not been received and the work is cancelled,” she said.

Devi said with inflation at an all-time high, it has become difficult to survive, and MGNREGS is the last promising resort which is failing. “The prices of garlic, dal and daily essentials have escalated to Rs 200 per kilo. How will we manage with low incomes?” she asked.

Uttar Pradesh has a deficit of Rs 8.5 crores in the MGNREGS budget for the current fiscal year and has witnessed the deletion of 11.63 million workers’ names in 2022-2023 and ongoing 2023-2024.

In Andhra Pradesh, names of 8.39 million workers have been deleted from the programme and the state has a MGNREGS budget deficit of Rs 1067 crore. However, the demand for work under MGNREGS here has been the highest in the past two years.

The demand for work in June, July, August and September has been 3,707,575, 2,339,606, 812,070 and 547,473, respectively. This demand is higher than the previous year, which recorded demand of 3,741,002, 1,185,577, 620,699 and 647,802 for corresponding months. 

The total number of registered workers in the state is 6,888,133.

West Bengal, one of the major contributors to the scheme with 13,673,256 registered workers, has witnessed no payment of wages for the past 18 months. The state has recorded a deficit of Rs 1635.4 crore and has seen the deletion of 89 lakh job cards to date. The pending wages are to the tune of Rs 4106.6 crore.

“In September 2022, the demand for work in the state was 65,246 which has now dropped to 10 for the same period this year. The central government wants to use West Bengal as an experimental state to kill the MGNREGS,” said Anuradha Talwar, convenor of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha in West Bengal.

Talwar said despite people being eligible for wage payments for the work they have completed, the Centre has held funds for political reasons. “No corrupt persons have been punished or identified by the government in past months, reasoning which the funds were stopped suddenly from December 2021,” she said.

Other states like Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu and Telangana also saw a deficit in the MGNREGS budget allocation. While as many as 987,681 workers in Jharkhand have demanded work, only 1,714,565 have been able to avail work so far this year. In July, August and September, the demand stood at 966,994, 855,130 and 784,736 respectively.

States with positive budgets, such as Bihar (Rs 599.9 crore), Gujarat (Rs 29 crore), Karnataka (Rs 509 crore), Rajasthan (Rs 239.4 crore) and Maharashtra (Rs 316 crore), among others, are likely to suffer fund crunch in the coming months.

Tamang said these states also have pending dues worth crores accumulated in the past three years, and hence, the remaining budget will be exhausted and insufficient.

Besides, the money is inclusive of the labour wages and material costs. “This will make it likely that their money will run out and millions of workers will continue to suffer with no work and absence of wages for the completed work,” she said. 

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