Shyam Lal Nishad, a resident of Ameri Kapa village in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district, is happy that his part of land, which was earlier lying barren, is being converted in to a proper paddy field now.He could not have done so earlier for want of investment in the said work. But now the labourers are converting this ‘Tikra’ (unused) land in to a ‘Bahara’ (high-yield paddy field), while the wages for the same are being paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme.
The addition of new works like these has made MGNREGA more useful and also helped silence the critics who had objected to the scheme on the ground of “no asset creation”.
The rejuvenation of the rivulets (nalla), which has been part of ambitions “Narwa, Garwa, Ghurwa, Baadi” project of the Chhattisgarh government, has also been integrated in to MGNREGA works, and hundreds of rivulets are being rejuvenated under this scheme. These water ways would ensure both irrigation and water conservation in the long run. Shyam Kumar, a resident of Ameri Akbari, is exalted that this cleaning of Bahra Narwa (nalla) would ensure faster water movement and help many during the cropping season.
The importance of MGNREGA scheme is now accepted by one and all. No wonder that with its hands tied due to Covid-19 crisis when migrant workers are desperate to leave metro cities — often travelling long distances by foot in a bid to reach their native places — the state governments are struggling to ensure remunerative work in villages for the large workforce. Chhattisgarh, which has already enhanced the legal obligation of providing 100 days work to 150 days, demanded more funds for the flagship scheme during a virtual meeting of the chief ministers with Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently. The demand got support from other chief ministers as well.
The central government, too, after considering all options and in order to provide job support to the large workforce which has or is reaching native villages, has acted rationally and announced another Rs 4,0000 crore allocation for the MGNREGA scheme. The funds will be distributed amongst various states. If we consider Rs 200 as wage for one man-day under this scheme, the allocated amount could generate 200 crore man-days’ worth of work under the scheme. The additional allocation would surely give some relief, but given the 40 crore strong labour force in the country, the governments need to chalk out more strategies for their productive engagement.
Adding More MGNREGA Works, Enhancing Allotment
Criticised earlier by many, including PM Modi himself, MGNREGA is the only viable option at present to provide relief and work to the labourers. Keeping their buying power intact is the key for any economic revival at present. However, the complain with regard to the lack of asset creation under the scheme has been cured to a large extent by gaining experience year by year.
When Sharad Pawar was the agriculture minister under the UPA, he mooted a proposal to allow MGNREGA wages to be paid to labourers working in Kharif season. His argument was to provide subsidy to farmers in this manner so that their cost would reduce. But the said proposal was shot down by both economically Left-leaning and Right-leaning bodies which alleged that it will help only big farmers.
However, in a country like ours, where majority of land holding is less than one hectare, the term ‘big farmer’ is a misnomer. The said proposal, with more safeguards, could be revived now as recently a group of ministers in the central government suggested that MGNREGA funds should be used to pay wages to the labourers of the factories closed due to Covid-19.
Such a use of MGNREGA funds would clearly violate the MGNREGA Act and thus not permissible. Since Covid-19 effect is going to stay at least till this Kharif season, the Funds should be allowed to be used for paying wages for farm labour works as a subsidy measure to reduce the cost of the crop. Needless to say, government is still about 30 per cent short in the MSP pricing compared to what has been recommended by the Swaminathan Commission.