Rajasthan and Karnataka, which used to be stand-out performers of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)'s flagship scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), of late, are showing signs of faltering in terms of execution, raising a question mark on the future of the programme. The scheme, launched in February 2006, was considered instrumental in returning the Congress to power in 2009.
The number of days a household got employment in rural areas of Rajasthan was about 38 per year in 2009-10 and 23 per year in 2012-13, according to an analysis done by economists Reetika Khera and Dimple Kukreja.
For the analysis, the number of rural households have been calculated by dividing rural population estimates as on March 1 of every year by the household size. The household size has been taken from National Sample Survey (NSS) data of 2009-10. The rural population estimates have been sourced from the report on population projection and the states by the National Commission on Population. The households include those which might not have been interested in jobs under MGNREGS. (THE MGNREGS REPORT)
Khera and Kukreja show Rajasthan's percentage expenditure against available funds dropped from 82 per cent in 2012-13 to 75 per cent in 2013-14, till January.
In 2012-13, the number of gram panchayats with no expenditure was around 30 in 2013-14 till January 15, the number had risen to 287 of the total 9,196 gram panchayats in the state.
In Karnataka, too, the analysis for 2009-10 shows that the number of days a household is employed was 25 per year which dropped to eight per year in 2012-13. The number of nil expenditure gram panchayats had increased, too.
In 2013-14 till January 15, West Bengal and Odisha recorded the lowest average person-days generated per household a month, compared with the national average of 35. Interestingly, opposition-ruled Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu have shown a steady increase in this measure.
In Chhattisgarh, it increased from 20 in 2009-10 to 29 in 2012-13; in Tamil Nadu, from 25 in 2009-10 to 48 in 2012-13.
Khera who teaches economics said,"Barring two-three states, MGNREGS has virtually collapsed in the country. Delays in wage payments, an over-the-top technocratic approach (with Aadhaar linking, electronic muster rolls, etc) are to be blamed for much of this. These, in turn, are a reflection of the dwindling political interest in MGNREGS," said Khera. She recently presented her findings in a conference of the Indian Society of Labour Economics
Himanshu, who teaches economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said this was due to "too much administrative interference" in MGNREGS.
Himanshu said states wanted to expand the nature of work done under the scheme. Now, when the government was trying to bring some flexibility, it was too late, as the programme had already lost much of its sheen, he added.
"In many states, MGNREGS wages were lower than the market wages, which further put off labourers," He added. "In many areas, there has been a revival in the rural economy for variety of reasons, further pulling down demand for MGNREGS jobs."
Economist Amitabh Kundu, dean of the School of Social Sciences at JNU, said less rigorous monitoring, corruption and fraudulent reporting of the number of persons, particularly in states with poor governance and high poverty, were factors in exaggerating the number. "I believe this has been questioned and brought down, particularly after the last Comptroller and Auditor General report. The delay in payment also could be due to less interest of the officials, as they don't stand to benefit much any more," Kundu said.
Uttar Pradesh (UP), India's most populous state, was among the worst in creating employment under the scheme.
According to data of the department of rural development, in 2012-13, it generated only 29 person-days of work on an average for rural households, the worst among big states and much lower than the national average of 46.
The number of gram panchayats with no expenditure too rose during the same period from 647 in 2011-12 to 827 in 2012-13 of the total of 52,112 gram panchayats in the state. Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh pulled up the state government for tardy performance.
In 2012-13, only 19.7 per cent of total persons provided employment under MGNREGS in UP were women, while the national average was 51.3 per cent. The state's notified wage rate of Rs 142 a day in 2013-14 was also much lower than the national average of Rs 151.61.
"Political will at the central and state levels is an important ingredient for the success of MGNREGS. The dramatic increase in zero-expenditure gram panchayats in Uttar Pradesh is a reflection of a lukewarm central government and a completely uninterested state government," said Khera.
Said Kundu, "The decline in person-days of employment under MGNREGS in states with high rural poverty and unemployment is a serious concern, particularly when the wages under the mission have gone up substantially."
Clearly, it shows the UPA has to look afresh if it wants its flagship scheme to be a vote-catcher again.