The so­lu­tion is univer­sal

Strength­en­ing the MGNREGA would be more pru­dent than a tar­geted cash trans­fer plan like PM-KISAN

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL - Ra­jen­dran Narayanan & Deb­malya Nandy Ra­jen­dran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji Univer­sity, Bengaluru. Deb­malya Nandy is a so­cial worker

Ru­ral dis­tress has hit un­prece­dented lev­els. Ac­cord­ing to news re­ports, un­em­ploy­ment is the high­est in 45 years. To al­lay some mis­giv­ings of the dis­tress, one of the an­nounce­ments in the Bud­get speech was that “vul­ner­a­ble land­hold­ing farmer fam­i­lies, hav­ing cul­tivable land up to 2 hectares, will be pro­vided di­rect in­come sup­port at the rate of ₹ 6,000 per year”.

This cash trans­fer scheme has been called Prad­han Mantri Kisan Sam­man Nidhi (PM-KISAN). The Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture has writ­ten to State gov­ern­ments to pre­pare a data­base of all el­i­gi­ble ben­e­fi­cia­ries along with their Aad­haar num­bers, and up­date land records “ex­pe­di­tiously”. The let­ter fur­ther states that changes in land records af­ter Fe­bru­ary 1, 2019 shall not be con­sid­ered for this scheme.

A com­par­i­son

Un­doubt­edly, farm­ers’ dis­tress needs ur­gent at­ten­tion but let’s see if the PM-KISAN is a rea­son­able so­lu­tion. Let us first com­pare some ba­sic num­bers with the Ma­hatma Gandhi Na­tional Ru­ral Em­ploy­ment Guar­an­tee Act (MGNREGA). For ex­am­ple, if two mem­bers of a house­hold in Jhark­hand work un­der MGNREGA (pic­ture) for 30 days, they would earn ₹10,080 and a house­hold of two in Haryana would earn ₹16,860 in 30 days. Jhark­hand has the low­est daily MGNREGA wage rate, and Haryana the high­est. Put sim­ply, a month of MGNREGA earn­ings for a house­hold is more than a year’s in­come sup­port through PM-KISAN any­where in the coun­try.

PM-KISAN is a tar­geted cash trans­fer pro­gramme and MGNREGA is a univer­sal pro­gramme. Any ru­ral house­hold will­ing to do man­ual work is el­i­gi­ble un­der the Act. Ac­cord­ing to the 2011 So­cio-Eco­nomic and Caste Cen­sus, around 40% of ru­ral house­holds are land­less and de­pend on man­ual labour. The land­less can earn through the MGNREGA but are not el­i­gi­ble for the PM-KISAN scheme. Notwith­stand­ing the mea­gre amount, the PM-KISAN might be pit­ting the land­less against a small farmer.

Fur­ther, it is un­clear how ten­ant farm­ers, those with­out ti­tles, and women farm­ers would be within the am­bit of the scheme. There is also sub­stan­tial ev­i­dence to demon­strate that univer­sal schemes are less prone to cor­rup­tion than tar­geted schemes. In tar­geted pro­grammes, it is very com­mon to have er­rors of ex­clu­sion, i.e., gen­uine ben­e­fi­cia­ries get left out. Such er­rors go un­recorded and peo­ple con­tinue to be left out. It is in some of these con­texts that strength­en­ing an ex­ist­ing univer­sal pro­gramme such as the MGNREGA would have been a pru­dent move in­stead of in­tro­duc­ing a hasty tar­geted cash trans­fer pro­gramme.

The Agri­cul­ture Min­istry’s let­ter states that “funds will be elec­tron­i­cally trans­ferred to the ben­e­fi­ciary’s bank ac­count by [Govern­ment of In­dia] through State No­tional Ac­count on a pat­tern sim­i­lar to MGNREGS”. There are im­por­tant lessons to be learned from the MGNREGA im­ple­men­ta­tion. The Cen­tre has fre­quently tin­kered with the wage pay­ments sys­tem in the MGNREGA. It’s cred­itable that timely gen­er­a­tion of pay-or­ders have im­proved, but con­trary to the Cen­tre’s claims, less than a third of the pay­ments were made on time. And in con­tempt of the Supreme Court or­ders, the Cen­tre alone has been caus­ing a de­lay of more than 50 days in dis­burs­ing wages.

Field re­al­i­ties

More­over, re­peated changes in pro­cesses re­sult in a hur­ried bureau­cratic re­ori­en­ta­tion on the ground, and much chaos among work­ers and field func­tionar­ies alike. Field func­tionar­ies are pushed to meet stiff tar­gets. Be­ing short-staffed and in­ad­e­quately trained, this re­sults in many tech­ni­cal and un­fore­seen er­rors. A case in point is the rushed man­ner in which Aad­haar has been im­ple­mented for the MGNREGA.

Sev­eral MGNREGA pay­ments have been re­jected, di­verted, or frozen as a con­se­quence. In the last four years alone, more than ₹1,300 crore of the MGNREGS wage pay­ments have been re­jected due to tech­ni­cal er­rors such as in­cor­rect ac­count num­bers or faulty Aad­haar map­ping. There have been no clear na­tional guide­lines to rec­tify these. There are nu­mer­ous cases of MGNREGS pay­ments getting di­verted to Air­tel wal­lets and ICICI bank ac­counts. In a re­cently con­cluded sur­vey on com­mon ser­vice cen­tres in Jhark­hand for Aad­haar-based pay­ments, it was found that 42% of the bio­met­ric au­then­ti­ca­tions failed in the first at­tempt, com­pelling them to come later. This con­tin­ued ha­rass­ment faced by peo­ple would have been a more hu­mane ques­tion to ad­dress rather than brush­ing them aside as “teething prob­lems” and build a new scheme on sim­i­lar shaky plat­forms.

The suc­cess of the PM-KISAN is con­tin­gent on there be­ing re­li­able dig­i­tal land records and re­li­able ru­ral bank­ing in­fra­struc­ture — both are ques­tion­able at best. While ₹75,000 crore has been ear­marked for this scheme, the MGNREGA con­tin­ues to be pushed to a se­vere cri­sis. The MGNREGA al­lo­ca­tion for 2019-20 is ₹60,000 crore, lower than the re­vised bud­get of ₹61,084 crore in 2018-19. In the last four years, on an av­er­age, around 20% of the Bud­get al­lo­ca­tion has been un­paid pend­ing pay­ments from pre­vi­ous years. Thus, sub­tract­ing the pend­ing li­a­bil­i­ties, in real terms, the Bud­get al­lo­ca­tion has been lower than 2010-11. De­spite a let­ter to the Prime Min­is­ter by cit­i­zens and MPs in Jan­uary 2019, (as of Fe­bru­ary 8) all MGNREGA funds have been ex­hausted. While the coun­try stares at an im­pend­ing drought, work­ers lan­guish in un­em­ploy­ment. The MGNREGA is nei­ther an in­come sup­port pro­gramme nor just an as­set cre­ation pro­gramme. It is a labour pro­gramme meant to strengthen par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy through com­mu­nity works. It is a leg­isla­tive mech­a­nism to strengthen the con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ple of the right to life. That the MGNREGA works have demon­stra­bly strong mul­ti­plier ef­fects are yet an­other rea­son to im­prove its im­ple­men­ta­tion. De­spite all this, the MGNREGA wage rates in 18 States have been kept lower than the States’ min­i­mum agri­cul­tural wage rates. This acts as a de­ter­rent for the land­less. Yet, work de­mand has been 33% more than the em­ploy­ment pro­vided this year — un­der­scor­ing the des­per­a­tion to work. By rou­tinely un­der-fund­ing this Act, the Bharatiya Janata Party govern­ment con­tin­ues to un­der­mine the con­sti­tu­tional guar­an­tee.

In an em­ploy­ment pro­gramme, ad­e­quacy of fund al­lo­ca­tion and re­spectable wages are cru­cial, so mean­ing­less claims of “high­est ever al­lo­ca­tion” and other dubious claims through a man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tem are un­healthy for democ­racy.

At a time of such acute dis­tress, does it not be­hove the Cen­tral govern­ment to im­prove the ex­ist­ing univer­sal in­fra­struc­ture of the MGNREGA be­fore plung­ing into a pro­gramme pre­tend­ing to aug­ment farm­ers’ in­come?

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