New Delhi: The last time the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act hit the headlines was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a “living monument of UPA’s failure”. He questioned the wisdom of the government in sending a large population to dig trenches. But this might just be a myth and BJP MP Varun Gandhi is out to bust it with his new book A Rural Manifesto, which he dubs as an “academic critique” of rural policies.
In one section of the book, which released on Wednesday, Gandhi writes, “While some groups have made unsubstantiated claims that MGNREGA involves digging trenches and then filling them up, without any usefulness, the reality has been different.”
Speaking to News18, Gandhi backed the rural employment scheme launched in the UPA era. “MNREGA is principally a good scheme and I am in favour of it,” he said.
Gandhi, who became an MP in 2009, says he broke his vow of donating his salary to families of debt-ridden farmers who committed suicide since he realised that very few people benefitted from it.
“I donated my salary, which went on for a few years, but I realised that very few benefitted from it. I also read that subaltern movements are missing and questioned why the politics today is devoid of larger movements. We decided to sit down and draw up an economic model to understand why farmers commit suicide. We came across many reasons for it,” he says.
Gandhi says he put in a lot of ground work with his team to identify the problems in rural India. He says his team decided against a donation drive to help out farmers as 90% of them were at the risk of falling back into the debt trap.
After trying to chart out economic models for farmers, Gandhi says he realised that policy measures are needed to help 500 million people. That’s when he dealt with the subject and started traveling to Gram Sabha meetings.
Varun Gandhi’s book explores the idea of the Indian village as an independent socio-economic entity, inspired from his travels and experiences as a Member of Parliament. One of the critical aspects when it comes to examining socio-economic fabric of an Indian village is rural labour and Gandhi explored that through NREGA.
In his opinion, Indian agriculture has typically had ample supply of labour, which is usually underutilised given the seasonal nature of work. As labour supply grew, farming wages declined. Even today, India’s agricultural labourers remain a neglected class, with low income and irregular employment while possessing little to no skills or training.
“The Act offers a rights based approach instead of focusing on market based opportunity. Wherever possible manual unskilled jobs are offered at minimum wages, limiting labour exploitation and putting floor on rural wages. The program utilises a bottom up approach with significant involvement from Panchayati raj Institutions as stakeholders,” Gandhi writes in the book.
“The Act also envisaged the creation of sustainable assets in rural areas, which would contribute towards the natural resource base, while furthering sustainable development. Theoretically, review and strict vigilance over projects was an integral part of the program,” he adds. He calls NREGA a “major central scheme with incentives for states to encourage it”.
In the book, Gandhi also deals with the stereotype that the scheme ropes in only poor workers. “With stereotypes about MGNREGA associate participation with the extremely poor, this is not always true. MGNREGA does attract workers who have low education level and come from rather poor backgrounds three fourths of the household participating in MGNREGA are non-poor.”
The MNREGA was brought in with the goal of providing a safety net to rural labour and to create local assets. It had sought to provide employment of at least 100 days in a financial year for rural households. Of 153 kinds of projects that can be undertaken under the scheme, almost 100 fall under the Natural Resource Management (NRM) component and with 71 of these are related to water works.
Gandhi says that a survey of 4,100 works created under MGNREGA revealed that 87% of them were functional (with 75% of works being related to agriculture, directly or indirectly) and a majority of the remaining connect habitations, farms and markets.
The book cites studies conducted across 2,057 households in four states by Indian Institute of Science in collaboration with the rural development ministry to point out that MGNREGS works have contributed to increased groundwater levels, improved water availability for irrigation and, consequently, increased the net area under cultivation.
WHAT MNREGA NEEDS
Gandhi, however, conceded that much can be improved. He says MNREGA suffers from inadequate budgetary allocations and inadvertent payment delays in 72% of villages.
His book points out that grassroots organisations like NREGA Sangharsh Morcha estimated that over 9.2 crore workers may not be getting their dues on time, with delayed wage payments estimated at Rs 3,066 crore. Studies reveal that payment-related delays were responsible for almost 71% of abandoned works, while technical difficulties accounted for 15%.
Faulty definition of ‘delay’ under the Act, which calls for interest on payment dues to the beneficiary, leads to 86% of true delay compensation not calculated, the book says.
“The problem is that there is centralized decision-making in the whole of rural policy in this country. Now with centralized policy making the choice of projects is sometimes of sub-optimal efficiency. We might want canals to be built in areas and some areas might have a water surplus. Maybe a region needs something else. We cannot have blanket decisions taken. Decisions should be bottom up and subaltern and identification of problems which can have top down solution,” Gandhi says.