By Krishna Jha
It was MGNREGA, the flagship rural employment scheme that had provided succour to starving migrant labour when the economic crisis was galvanising the entire production process. Choices were extremely scanty. It was either to go hungry and face the ultimate or to get infected with the deadly disease and die unsung, unlamented since the entire populace was facing the challenge. The urban labour had been retrenched and the available jobs were all contractual, with unlimited hours of slogging.
The national statistical data has shown that in both urban and rural population, at least 57 percent was indebted. And it was the data from pre-pandemic days. Along with lockdowns, sharp hike in unemployment, horror of second wave, steep rise in prices, the youth was losing jobs drastically. It fell from 15 percent and a little more in 2016-17 to 32.03 percent in 2021. Pushed into forced labour, the harassed job seekers became victims of delayed payments also. Forced because of the extended working hours and much less wages than even the minimum. The result is in the world hunger index, out of 116 countries taken account of, our country stands at 101, meaning not only stunting but perishing also has acquired high rate. It is one among 31 nations where the condition has been serious. There were undernourished, underweight, stunted children under five. The consistent downfall in the quality of life for the poor since 2015-16 turned the country into easy victims of pandemic. The options were sharply divided, either die on the post, with no availability of silver lining, or migrate, even on foot. Most opted for the latter and here was the MGNREGA that till recently came with help though meagre, in rural sector.
Now this rural employment opening is also starving for funds. It is only a little more than half of the financial year, but supplementary budgetary allocations would come only after the beginning of the next parliamentary session. MGNREGA itself has stated that only a negative net balance of Rs 8,686 crore is there in its fund, meaning delay in the payments to the starving toilers and also in the supply of material costs. The deadlock can be resolved only if states come out with opening their own coffers, according to the Centre. It is simply shifting of responsibilities.
At a time of dire economic crisis, the Centre has even been labelling the demands as “artificially created” by states as they want work on the ground.
MGNREGA was born to sustain demand, with guarantee for hundred days of unskilled work offered in times of crisis to the rural households that require it. However, as data shows, during the lockdown days, MGNREGA had been sanctioned the highest budget of Rs 1.11 lakh crore. It was a life-giving act, offering employment to eleven crore toilers. But the budget of the scheme for 2021-22 offered just around Rs 73,000 crore. The Centre claimed that if there was financial crunch at the time of nationwide lockdown coming to its end, there has to be supplementary budgetary allocations made available. As on October 29, the total expenditure including payments due had already reached Rs 79,810 crore, obviously the scheme had reached a stage of red alert. Twenty-one states already had negative net balance, with Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal faring the worst. Twenty-one states were already at a point where NAREGA was shuttering down halfway in the year. The slogging without any return, unpaid wages mounting beyond limits, the employment scenario was getting not only grim but leading to violation of constitutional rights of the workers that were already under the crushing impact of pandemic. Yet no one had been willing to shoulder the cost. The onus was on states as the Centre was reluctant to bear the responsibility. It was spelt out by some sources from the rural development ministry that since it has been too soon to declare the absence of funds, instead of being scarce, the employed would be slogging with a vague promise of wages, depending on its availability. The states were blamed as implementing the scheme not on the basis of demand but on supply. It was also said that initiatives were taken to create even artificial demand by the states. The system in the scheme is that jobs are provided when unemployment gets acute and not the other way round.
But in reality, 13 per cent of households are still awaiting the job possibility, even after demanding, they are simply left in lurch, not even registered. The data available are only partially correct. In fact, the states generate jobs on the basis of fund flow, but the Centre, in its budgetary allocations, has cut down the estimates sharply as it is 34 percent short of the revised estimates made for 2020-2021. (IPA Service)