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MGNREGA: From Guarantee to Uncertainty—Why Its Decline is India's Emerging Crisis

Exploring the Unravelling Threads of MGNREGA: How Budget Cuts, Bureaucratic Hurdles, and Unpaid Wages Threaten Millions of Rural Livelihoods

By Ravishankar Kumar
New Update

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), or NREGA as it's popularly known is a flagship government scheme aimed to transform the livelihoods of rural households by guaranteeing a minimum of 100 days of employment each year. However, today, this groundbreaking initiative finds itself on shaky ground. From north to south, east to west, virtually every state in India is grappling with issues in its implementation.

Anita Prajapati, a labourer from Chattisgarh, laments the failing structure of the MGNREGA. "Workers who work don't get paid, and the money goes into someone else's account. I worked for 45 days in a place and didn't receive a single penny; the money was credited to someone else's account instead. Our voices are being suppressed," says Prajapati.

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Laavanya Tamang, Senior Researcher at LibTech India, echoed the same sentiment. "MGNREGA is in a very worrying state right now. There are about 26 crore MGNREGA labourers in the country, and the conditions they are in are extremely serious," Tamang notes. "Every state has its own challenges, such as financial shortages, delayed salaries, limited work window, lack of compensation, and technological issues like dysfunctional attendance apps and Aadhaar payment issues."

MGNREGA | The Fading Promise of Rural Employment in India

Ravi Pal Sirohi from Uttar Pradesh sums up the crisis succinctly. "Ever since the BJP government came into power, the MGNREGA budget has been continuously cut," says Sirohi. "Due to the budget crisis, we are unable to get work. So, our demand is that the government should increase the MGNREGA budget and release the money soon."

Tulsi Nahariya from Gujarat adds another layer to the story. "The situation in my village is that even after requesting for months to get work, we still don't get any," Nahariya states. "Women, widows, and older people who are labourers have to suffer. Therefore, when work is not made available through MGNREGA, labourers have to go out in search of work, for example, to Ahmedabad or Surat."

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MGNREGA | The Double-Edged Sword of Digital Transformation

The union government's initiative to digitalise the MGNREGA operations seems to be making matters worse. The National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) App, engineered to eliminate leakages and improve transparency, has ironically deepened the crisis.

Balulal of the Rajasthan Asangathit Mazdoor Union sheds light on the situation. "Despite a labourer reporting to work for 12 days, they are still paid wages for only 6, 7, or 8 days," Balulal reveals. "Another issue is that Aadhaar-based payment has many loopholes; sometimes the payment gets deposited into someone else's account. If the government really wants to weed out corruption, then they must do a social audit of this scheme."

Centre-State Tug-of-War: The West Bengal Scenario

Anuradha Talwar, a vocal advocate for the rights of workers in West Bengal, provides an in-depth perspective on the state's situation. "Since December 2021, labourers who have been working still haven't received their wages. For the 2023-2024 fiscal year, the central government has entirely stopped funding. We don't expect anyone to get jobs until March 2024, as the central government has halted all funding," says Talwar.

Talwar adds, “When protests didn't make an impact, we filed a case in the high court. After filing the case, we found out that the central government had imposed Section 27 on March 9, 2022. By imposing this section, they can halt all funding. That means the flow of funds that had been stopped from December to March by the central government was entirely illegal”.

MGNREGA | A Dwindling Budget and its Real-world Impact

The budget allocation for MGNREGA has notably reduced this year. "The budget is decreasing year by year. As of today's date, with half of the financial year still remaining, only 4% of the MGNREGA budget is left," Tamang notes. "The entire concept of MGNREGA, which promises the right to work when in need so that no one has to go to sleep hungry, is being undermined and destroyed," states Tamang.

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Many NREGA workers and activists from across the country are sending out a clear warning: if the government doesn't respond to their urgent demands for increased budget allocation and the elimination of bureaucratic roadblocks, they are prepared to campaign against the ruling BJP. They say, this could spell trouble for the BJP as it gears up to face the forthcoming general elections.

Raj Shekhar Singh, the National Coordinator for the Right to Food Campaign states the labourer unions from different states have met in New Delhi and taken a strong stand against the union government. "For the last 9 years, the current BJP government has been attempting to dismantle MGNREGA. We aim to disseminate this message to every panchayat and village in the country so that during the upcoming 2024 elections, we make it clear to this government that the exploitation they have carried out against working-class labourers will not be tolerated in the future."

After multiple attempts to contact the Ministry of Rural Development regarding the challenges faced by MGNREGA workers across the nation, we have yet to receive a response. As the complexities of MGNREGA implementation continue to mount, it's not just a program that's at risk of failing; a generation of workers and their families also stand to lose their most basic rights—the right to work and the right to a dignified life.

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