New Delhi - India is in the grip of a drought for the second year running. On an average, 9 farmers committed suicide daily in Maharashtra alone last year.
A fight against drought of course needs adequate supply of drinking water and foodgrain but it also requires the government to augment existing Central initiatives and launch new schemes for affected states. Is the government doing enough to help drought affected regions?
Last week, a Supreme Court bench asked the Centre to list measures taken under the national food security law and the rural employment guarantee scheme that are meant to benefit drought-hit areas.
The Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MNREGA) offers guaranteed jobs in the hinterland. Though spending under MNREGA in 2015-16 was the highest ever at Rs 41,617 crore and Rs 38,500 crore have been allocated in the Union Budget for the current fiscal, implementation of the scheme remains patchy.
Only 9% of the total households under MNREGA even completed 100 days of employment last fiscal. Wage arrears for last fiscal have only now been released by the Centre, after SC prodding, and about 52 lakh works under MNREGA remained incomplete as of March 31 this year.
Officials say the government has approved digging of 8.77 lakh total ponds under MNREGA this fiscal of which a “majority” will be in drought affected areas and with wage-material ratio of 80:20. Each pond should envisage investment of Rs 1.6 lakh. But even where allocation is being made to create water reservoirs which assuage water shortage and also provide employment, faulty implementation is making matters worse.
A report in The Times of India today delineates how faulty implementation is also affecting person days as machines take over.
Now that drought is spreading to more districts, here is a look at what needs to be done under MNREGA:
1) A senior official with the Ministry of Rural Development said on Friday that of the Rs 7,983 crore arrears in unpaid wages under this scheme for 2015-16, Rs 2,723 crore was the amount pending for works done in 10 drought-affected states alone. Additionally, there is a pending demand from states for Rs 4,000 crore for material arrears, which will be released in June, after the Union Budget for 2016-17 is passed in Parliament.
On Saturday, Union Minister for Rural Development Rao Birender Singh announced the release of Rs 12,230 crore as Central contribution under MNREGA to states. In a statement, the Minister said this will take care of the pending wage liability of the states for 2015-16 and help them run the programme during 2016-17.
Singh refuted media reports that there were wage arrears of over Rs 8,000 crore under MGNREGA for the 2015-16. And the ministry official quoted earlier said typically, pending arrears under MNREGA were cleared each year in April and the amount usually took care of wage arrears of the previous fiscal.
Wage arrears are probably one of the biggest reasons for workers, especially those in drought affected districts, to not come forward. These need to be minimized.
2) This article in the Business Standard newspaper said on Sunday that now, when nearly half of India's 676 districts are grappling with drought, the government expects a decline in the demand for work under MNREGA.
The story says estimated number of days when people in rural India will be offered work has been slashed by 220 million person-days from the previous year. In 2015-16, the government had approved a labour budget of 2,391 million person-days, the report said adding the same for 2016-17 is 2,170 million person-days.
This would either lead to work for fewer hands or lesser work for all those who apply for the scheme. But the ministry official quoted earlier said person days in 2015-16 would be 2280 million against 1660 million in the previous fiscal.
3) Only 9% of households which were to benefit under the MNREGA job guarantee completed 100 days of work last fiscal. That is less than even one in 10 households with the number totaling to just 44 lakh households. A report in the Mint newspaper showed the percentage of rural households completing 100 days of work in drought-affected states is much lower than even the national average.
It said the number of such households is 2% in Uttar Pradesh — one of the worst-hit states — 3.7% in Chhattisgarh, 4.5% in Madhya Pradesh, 4.6% in Odisha, and 5.5% in Karnataka. Some of the better performing states are Telangana (7.3%), Andhra Pradesh (8%), Jharkhand (8.2%) and Maharashtra (12.2%).
Minister Singh said in his statement on Saturday that 20.48 lakh households in drought affected regions completed 100 days of work last fiscal. But the ministry official quoted earlier said MNREGA is a demand-driven programme and in any case, is meant to supplement household income instead of being the primary source of income.
The Centre has now increased the number of days of work under MNREGA from 100 to 150 days for drought-affected states, this official said. But if only one in 10 households were able to complete even 100 days of work, what are the chances of large swathes of households in the drought affected regions completing 150 days this fiscal?
4) Annual wage increase under this scheme has only been 5.7%. The ministry official said even though the wage increase has been moderate, the minimum wage in 19 states is still lower than the rate at which wages are being given under MNREGA.
According to a report in The Economic Times, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka have got the maximum increase of almost 10% in the daily wages under MNREGA. States with the least increase include the poll-bound states of West Bengal where the hike is a mere Rs 2 to Rs 176 and Assam which has seen only Rs 3 increase to Rs 182.
The Rural Development Ministry had earlier okayed a proposal by the Dev Committee to get MNREGA wages indexed to a state’s agricultural wages but the Finance Ministry is yet to sign on the dotted line. This would have meant an additional outgo of Rs 2000 crore but indications are the entire proposal may now be tweaked.