In an indicator of rural distress, the last year of the NDA government shows a marked increase in the demand for jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Official data show that in 2018-19, the demand for work increased by almost 10 per cent compared to the previous year and also registered the highest number of person-days of work under the scheme since 2010-11.
This financial year, up to March 25, the work generated under MGNREGA was 255 crore person-days with the numbers expected to go even higher. Against this, data show that the scheme generated 233 crore person-days in 2017-18 and 235 person days in 2016-17 and 2015-16 each.
In 2014-15, the first year under of the NDA government when Prime Minister Narendra Modi had dismissed MGNREGA as "the living monument of UPA's failure', the person-days generated was just 166 crore. Under the scheme, the unit of one person-day is generally taken to be eight hours of work.
While government officials implementing the scheme attribute the spurt to the increase in the frequency of climate-change related incidents such as drought or floods that lead to a loss of the mainstay farm incomes, those monitoring the scheme on the ground state that the increased uptake of MGNREGA work also reflects the overall situation of unemployment.
MGNREGA is a demand-driven social security scheme that provides for 100 days of work per rural household with the number of work-days allowed to be increased to 150 annually in case of drought, flood or a similar calamity. Nikhil Dey from the Mazdoor Kishan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) pointed out that in the face of unemployment and drought, people will take up any job that opens up. "Owing to joblessness, there is a massive demand for MGNREGA work but the provision of work was often restricted due to inadequate funds being allotted for the scheme by the Finance Ministry. The recent increase in person-days reflects that the government has finally acknowledged this demand," he said.
As per Rural Development Ministry estimates, in recent years, almost a quarter of the districts in the country have declared drought leading to a subsequent increase in demand for MGNREGA jobs. On March 18, the ministry announced the provision of 150 days of work in most districts of Jharkhand and Karnataka.
Jharkhand, which offers the country's lowest MGNREGA pay of Rs 168 per day, has over the last few months declared drought in 18 of its 24 districts. All 30 districts in Karnataka have been declared drought-hit. Similarly, over the last four months, additional work had to be provided under the scheme to large parts of drought-hit Rajasthan, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh as well as flood-affected Kerala and cyclone Gaja-hit Tamil Nadu.
Rajendran Narayanan, an MGNREGA researcher at the Azim Premji University, said, "The last one year, the agrarian crisis was really acute and there has been no alternate source of employment anywhere. The budget allotment for the scheme was abysmal just like in last four years but considering the extent of the crisis, states such as Karnataka started using their own funds to offset lack of funds from the Centre."
While MGNREGA provides for 100 days of work and 150 days in conditions of drought, data show that the average days of employment provided per household in 2018-19 while marginally higher than last few years is still only 49 days a year. The last time the MGNREGA work provision had peaked was in 2009-10 under the UPA-II government when owing to an unprecedented severe drought, 283 crore person-days work was generated under the scheme.