MNREGA budget cut in the times of drought

[This is an AHRC Statement.]
The rural distress plaguing large tracts of the Indian countryside is no secret. This distress has heightened in the wake of the devastating drought that is affecting more than half of India’s 676 districts. Forget the reports coming in from grass root organizations that showcase the severity of the crisis, data from the government’s own agencies expose the horror.
For instance, Maharashtra, especially the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions, has seen 273 farmers killing themselves in the first three months of 2016 alone; this is 59 suicides more than the corresponding period from last year.
The devil hides in the details. The spurt in farm suicides even before the onset of summer is an indicator of the things to come. Large tracts of state have already gone dry; Latur is the worst hit, with water curfews imposed there.
It is in this context that welfare schemes, like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) end up as the only way out for millions of rural poor to subsist. And, the government now wants to deny them even that.
The Supreme Court of India observed the same while hearing a petition by Swaraj Abhiyan, an activist group, which sought relief for drought hit regions in the country. The Court examined the data provided to it by the union government and curtly told the government that the funds allocated for MNREGA are not enough to alleviate the rural crisis, worsened by the drought that is affecting more than 10 states.
The bench of Justices Madan B. Lokur and N.V. Ramana held that:
"There is a shortage of funds and this shortage is going to be severe if all states comply with 100 days of employment per household per year which at present is only at 46 days as per your data. You need to have larger budget to solve the problem of drought hit people by offering them employment".
Ironically, the fund cut has arrived despite the current government’s complete about turn on MNREGA. It had called the act a “living monument of failure” of the previous government in its first budget. However, on the 10th anniversary of the Act, i.e. less than a year later, the same government termed MNREGA a “national pride”.
The pride, sadly, does not reflect in the numbers. Though, last year, the government enhanced the budgetary allocation for MNREGA to Rs. 38,500 crore from Rs. 34,699 crore, this has meant little on the ground, as states owe more over Rs. 10,000 crore as liability for wages that have gone unpaid during the last fiscal year. This liability leaves a mere Rs. 28,500 crore of funds available this year, around 18% lower than last year, in the face of an even more acute rural crisis.
The data exposes something bigger than the shrinking of available funds. It shows criminal disdain for the life of the rural poor who seek work under MNREGA to survive. Denying them wages on time defeats this very purpose. Sample this: the official data betrays exaggeratingly high level of delays in wage payment to workers. It shows that on time payment of wages for MNREGA work stood at a petty 27% in the fiscal year 2014-15, with the figure increasing to 45% last year.
The numbers expose that more than half the total workers do not get paid on time for work they take up to survive. They do not get paid in time for the work despite the national average for MNREGA wages standing at a paltry Rs. 132 (or $ 1.98 USD). They do not get paid on time even though they get work for only 46 days on average; the Act promises them employment for 100 days. This puts their total earning from MNREGA at Rs 6,072 per year. That amounts to Rs 506 a month, or Rs. 16. 87 (or $ 0.25 USD) a day!
One may consider the data like this as well: out of all the 28 provinces in India, 25 defaulted on timely payment last year. It is not the primary fault of the states though, as the states depend on funds from the union government to pay 90% of MNREGA works by statute.
Now, with the already entrenched rural distress aggravated by severe drought, the fund cuts for MNREGA mean slashing of the labour budget. This, in turn, means reducing the number of days of work offered to those seeking it and then leaving them to fend for themselves. The union government incidentally has done this already, by bringing down the number of person days to 2,170 million for 2,016-17, and 2,391 million person-days from last year!
It is not that the government is forced to do so for the lack of funds. Even a cursory glance at corporate loans foregone by the banks through waivers to bad debt mechanisms would expose the same. The government was set to reach Rs 55,000 crore by March 31, 2016, or almost the double of real allocation for MNREGA this year,
The Supreme Court bench had nailed what it really could be when the Additional Solicitor General Pinki Anand, who was to argue the union government’s case over Swaraj Abhiyan’s petition, failed to show up in time.
The bench curtly asked her:
"Is this like cattle or something? Go here, go there. This is not your priority? Two judges are sitting here. You expect us to do nothing and just keep looking at the watch waiting for time to pass?"
Perhaps the government is only wasting time.