MNREGA during COVID-19 pandemic: More households got work in 2020, but fund crunch a major concern, finds study

The importance of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as a safety net for the rural poor increased manifold during the COVID-19 lockdown, a new report has found

Neerad Pandharipande December 31, 2020 15:55:52 IST
MNREGA during COVID-19 pandemic: More households got work in 2020, but fund crunch a major concern, finds study

File image of migrant workers and their families gathered at Dharavi slum in Mumbai. AP

The importance of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as a safety net for the rural poor increased manifold during the COVID-19 lockdown. A report on the scheme prepared by a group of academicians and activists showed that while more people availed of it in 2020 compared to last year, the shortfall in funds allocated for the scheme is a major worry.

The report, a ‘NREGA National Tracker’, was published by People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) earlier this month. The report shows that over 1 crore more households took up work under the MNREGA in 2020 compared to last year, indicating that the scheme became much more significant during a period of unprecedented economic hardship. However, the average employment received per household this year (41 days) was lesser as compared to last year (48 days).

PAEG’s tracker based its findings on data gleaned from the MNREGA’s Management Information System (MIS), which is run by the Central government

From April 2020 to November 2020, there was a 43 percent increase in the number of person days generated, as compared to the same period last year. According to PAEG, this means that the government should have made provisions for at least 379 crore person days in the labour Budget this year. However, as of now, funds have been allocated only for 324 crore person days, the report notes.

Speaking to Firstpost, MS Raunaq, one of the authors of the report, said, “We arrived at the figure of 379 crore person days by assuming that the trend of a 43 percent increase in person day will continue for the rest of the financial year. We also took into account the fact that demand for MNREGA work varies from month to month. In general, the demand for MNREGA work is expected to increase from January to March, as this is the lean season in agriculture.”

Elaborating on the seasonal nature of work under the scheme, Pushpendra Kumar Singh, Chairperson of the Centre for Development Practice and Research, Tata Institute of Social Sciences said, “After the harvesting of wheat in March and April and before the sowing of paddy in June and July, there is very little work in agriculture in several parts of the country. Thus, more people take up MNREGA work in the summers. Similarly, during other lean seasons in agriculture as well, more people take up labour under this scheme. ”

The report by PAEG also cites several other statistics to show that the MNREGA scheme is facing significant budget constraints. To illustrate, 45.6 lakh households that applied for a job card were not issued one this year. Further, official data shows that at the end of November 2020, only 19.8 percent of the allocated funds for MNREGA remained to generate employment for the upcoming four months of the financial year — from December 2020 to March 2021.

However, speaking to Firstpost, NN Sinha, Secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, said, “Demand for MNREGA has indeed risen this year — the data speaks for itself. But allocation of work has kept up with it. This is because the scheme is essentially a demand-driven programme. As far as allocation of funds is concerned, the Union government has allocated Rs 1,01,500 crore to MNREGA for the financial year 2020-2021, which is an unprecedented amount. Before this, the maximum amount that was allocated for the scheme was about Rs 73,000.”

There are also significant state-wise variations in the way MNREGA has performed through the past year. For example, in Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, the percentage of households whose demand for MNREGA work was unmet was unmet at some point of the year was 25 percent and 23 percent respectively. On the other hand, West Bengal and Rajasthan did better on this front, and the corresponding figures for the two states were 7 percent and 8 percent respectively. Nationwide, 13 percent of households found their demand for work unmet at some point during the year.

However, data reveals only part of the picture. Vivek Anand, a TISS researcher who is part of a survey team currently examining the performance of MNREGA in Bihar, would attest to this. Vivek noted, “From what I have seen, there are several widespread malpractices in the implementation of the scheme. To illustrate, work done largely through mechanised means is sometimes shown as having been done through MNREGA. Often, the authorities are only interested in seeing the work that is being done, while official records such as the number of job cards issued and number of person days generated can be ‘managed.’ This system goes on as long as the ‘workers’ on the official records tell inspection teams that they indeed got work under the scheme. Even if someone complains, the local influential people ensure that things do not go out of hand.”

He further said, “On the whole, the status of implementation of the scheme differs from district to district, and even block to block. If the local administration is active, then more work gets done. However, in general, I have found that people who have good local connections got more work under MNREGA. As far as I have seen, the number of migrant returnees in Bihar who got work under the scheme were less.”

This indicates that the implementation of the MNREGA was inadequate in Bihar that arguably needed it the most. Bihar was the state where the largest number of migrant workers returned in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown, as noted by this article in The Indian Express.

Such inadequacies notwithstanding, the data does testify to the much-increased importance of MNREGA as a safety net during the hardships of the coronavirus lockdown. MS Raunaq notes, "In May, June and July, there was a massive increase in demand for work. From August to October, demand fell. As compared to August to October last year, the demand is still high. The increase in the number of person days generated till November this year (252.5 crore as against 176.7 crore till November last year) shows that the scheme has been a massive help for rural areas.

Speaking on the expected magnitude of work under MNREGA in the coming months, NN Sinha said, “One cannot make a blanket statement that work under the scheme will increase from January to March. This assumption may be true by and large for north India, but not the whole country. In regions such as Telangana, there is a lot of agriculture-related work due to the retreating monsoon. Thus, less work is taken up under MNREGA.”

Sinha further noted, “This year, the government contributed a lot of funds towards MNREGA. However, it would not be a good strategy to depend entirely on the scheme to deal with the shock of the pandemic. State governments must work towards ensuring that various sectors of the economy pick up pace. The need of the hour is sustained and sustainable employment.”

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