Strengthen scheme

Five years since the inception of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), there appears to be a concerted attempt at undermining the scheme. Its performance and achievements have been mixed. The world’s largest rights-based livelihood security programme, the scheme guarantees 100 days of wage-employment in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. It has grown remarkably over the past five years.

It was launched in a single district — Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh, and then implemented in a phased manner over more districts. It covers the entire country today. That the scheme is bringing positive change in rural India, albeit slowly is undeniable. Rural Indians might not be getting 100 days of paid work as it promises. Still they are getting more paid work than they did under earlier public works programmes. It provided employment to 41 million households in 2010-11, increased rural wages, slowed migration and created durable assets that will spur more rural development. Dalits, tribals and women are getting paid work.

However, the scheme has been attacked by the ‘growth lobby’ as an expensive gravy train. This section has argued that raising rural wages has fuelled inflation. Bowing to this lobby, the government froze the daily wages at Rs 100 and delinked it from the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Instead of offering MGNREGS workers statutory minimum wages, it recently said it would link the wages to the Consumer Price Index for agricultural labour. It is hard to dispel the feeling that the government is weakening the scheme from within.

The growth lobby would like to see it dismantled. It is true the scheme is riddled with problems and the funds are being channelled into private pockets. Villagers complain that they are rarely paid the wages due to them. Scams involving issue of job cards in the name of non-existent villagers have come out in the open. Middlemen are operating bank accounts in the name of job card holders. However, these are problems that can be addressed if we summon the political will. The way to fight corruption is strict enforcement of transparency safeguards and awareness creation among the people, not dismantling the programme. MGNREGS is a powerful tool of economic redistribution and social equity. It must be kept alive and implemented efficiently.

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