Centre expands social safety net programme

The Union government on Sunday injected an extra 40,000 crore into the national rural jobs programme, extending a helping hand to millions of rural poor, as well as urban migrant workers returning to villages.

This takes the total yearly allocation for the scheme to 1.01 trillion—a record since it was started in 2006—up from 61,500 crore set in the Union budget.

The expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), announced by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, comes nearly two months after the government raised the scheme’s wages from 182 a day to 202.

MGNREGS guarantees 100 days of work in a financial year to a rural household whose adult members volunteer for unskilled manual work.

Besides creating 3 billion person days (number of people working per day times number of days worked), the fund injection aims to create a “large number of durable and livelihood assets”, Sitharaman said. “It will also address the need for more work, including for the migrant workers in the monsoon season as well.”

In 2019-20, which was considered a normal monsoon year without rural distress, 2.65 billion person days were created. On Friday, Sitharaman, said the rural jobs programme had already generated 146.2 million person days of work till 13 May.

The previous highest initial allocation for MGNREGS was in the 2019-20 budget, when the government earmarked 68,000 crore. “We have enrolled all of the migrants coming back. We are making provisions through the rural development ministry to ensure that they get enrolled, they get work, they get the due payments,” she added.

Analysts largely welcomed the new injection of funds into the programme, seen as a safety net for the jobless in rural India. Sunday’s move comes as hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in urban India are making their way back to their villages because of a strict lockdown to arrest the spread of covid-19.

Former rural development secretary S. Vijay Kumar, now with New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute, welcomed the announcement, but pointed out that panchayats in some states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were ridden with conflicts and lacked the capacity to implement MGNREGS programmes properly—something the Centre needed to take note of. Most of the migrants in terms of numbers were returning to these states, he said.

Reetika Khera, an economist at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, said the additional allocation is a good start. “The announcement regarding keeping work open during the monsoon is very important. The monsoon is the ‘hungry season’, when people’s food stocks run out. Generally, MGNREGS used to close at that time so that it doesn’t compete with the agri labour market,” she said. “But all this must be combined with simplification of MGNREGS processes to ensure people get work easily and paid on time,” she said. For example, officials must allow for onsite enrollment of job seekers.

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