Just as the fiscal year draws to a close, about 61.1 million households have worked under the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) this year. This is nearly 16 per cent less than the number of people who worked under the scheme in the preceding fiscal year (2021-22, or FY22) but still higher than the number of families that worked under the scheme in the pre-pandemic years of 2019-20 (FY20) and 2018-19 (FY19).
In FY20, 54.8 million households worked under the programme; in FY19, this number was 52.7 million.
Although the final number of households that worked under the scheme might undergo some revision in 2022-23 (FY23), experts say the revision will be nominal.
Households working under MGNREGS had peaked at 75.5 million in 2020-21 and 72.5 million in FY22 because of demand from migrants returning from cities due to a pandemic-prompted nationwide lockdown.
The declining number of households that availed of the scheme’s benefit in FY23 could be a sign of diminishing distress in rural areas as economic recovery unlocks job opportunities in other areas.
But civil society members and others say this is a reflection of the ‘artificial’ suppression of demand the government has been resorting to, particularly in the past few months of FY23 through multiple digital interventions and throttling of budgetary allocation.
“If you consider West Bengal, where work demand has not been recorded due to wage-related imbroglio, straightway another million households will get added on to the number of households that would have worked under the scheme. While elsewhere, interventions, such as mobile phone application (app)-based attendance system and Aadhaar-enabled payments, are preventing many from seeking work, even if they are in need,” says Nikhil Dey, founder member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
In terms of the number of days of work provided, in FY23 so far, 47.13 days of employment have been provided of the mandated 100 days. This is also among the lowest in recent years. The previous low was 48.4 days in FY20.
So far, Rs 99,348.53 crore has been spent on the scheme in FY23, which is against the Revised Estimates of Rs 90,000 crore in FY23. This means Rs 9,000-11,000 crore will be carried forward to the next year as pending dues.
Meanwhile, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a grassroots-level worker group, in a representation to the government some time back, had said that instead of supporting social audits and other participatory anti-corruption measures, the central government has taken refuge in technological fixes that have proven useless at best, such as the questionable Aadhaar Payment Bridge System to corruption in the scheme.
On the mobile phone app-based attendance system, the Morcha had said it has on-ground evidence that in some cases, workers have lost 50 per cent of their wages owing to technical glitches in the app and many women worksite supervisors have had to take loans to buy smartphones to use the app.