Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

6.6 crore households have sought work under MGNREGA this year. Inadequate budgets and delays have added to their strains.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Women gathered in Rama Linda street in Munagapaka village in Andhra Pradesh. (Photographer: Pallavi Nahata/BloombergQuint)</p></div>
Women gathered in Rama Linda street in Munagapaka village in Andhra Pradesh. (Photographer: Pallavi Nahata/BloombergQuint)

It's about 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. But A. Leelavathi is in no rush. Neither are others in her village of Munagapaka in Andhra Pradesh.

Why aren't they heading to work? Because they've exhausted the work they are entitled to under India's rural jobs guarantee program. "Ade Pani. Inka em chestavu?" she says in Telugu. (What else to do? That's work.)

Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

For most in the village of Munagapaka, work either means farming, daily wage labour at construction sites or employment provided under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA. This work was intended to be a fallback option but has become a primary source of income for many. More so after the pandemic.

Leelavathi's husband, a daily wage labourer, looks for work at agricultural or construction sites in and around the village. Today, he has gone to the junction in the village in search of work. Some days he finds work and on other days he returns home without any, she said.

This leaves them dependent on food rations provided by the state government and work provided under the MGNREGA scheme.

Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

M Appalnarsimha, who resides in the same village, is also entirely dependent on MGNREGA work. She can't do much else, she said. "At 55, even when there is work, people are not willing to give it to me because they would rather employ someone young and preferably male," she said.

But even the male members in her household have had to resort to MGNREGA work.

"Previously, they did not like this work because wage payments are not on a daily basis and pay was lower than what they would receive otherwise on days they got work." Now, work is less and, often, people are also afraid to give work to others because of the fear of Covid, she explains.

This means that the 100 days of work permitted per household under the scheme is exhausted more quickly. "So I was not able to go," she said.

There is some work available in the fields to sow and harvest during the agricultural season. But other jobs have dried up. Together, farming and MGNREGA provides the family work for 150 days of the year, she said, doing the math in her head. "The remaining time we sit idle."

How does the family of five manage the rest of the time? They depend on the state government's rations for food and take loans to cover expenses when they are not earning. The next round of wages goes to pay back the loan and then a new one.

"That's the reason we live in this colony, distanced from the rest of the village," she said. "Maybe if we got more work, we would not be this backward."

Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

In the first nine months of the current financial year, 6.6 crore households have worked under the scheme in fiscal year 2021-22, according to data available on the official MGNREGA portal. This is compared to the 7.55 crore households who worked under the scheme in all of FY21. Compared to FY20, before the pandemic hit, 1.1 crore more households are seeking work via MGNREGA.

About 9.5 crore individuals have worked under the scheme in FY22 so far, according to the scheme's portal. This is compared to 11.2 crore in FY21 and 7.9 crore individuals in FY20.

This elevated demand for work meant that the Rs 73,000 crore allocated by the central government for the scheme was exhausted by December. Another Rs 22,000 crore has been allocated. While the government is bound by law to meet all demand for work that emerges under the scheme, as budgets come close to being used up, payment delays worsen and work available slows.

While wage payments would sometimes be delayed pre-pandemic, they are usually on time now, said Leelavathi. However, work is in short supply. Usually, the villagers just ask the field assistant for work who assigns it to them as per availability and suitability, she said.

Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

At Ramalinga Colony in Munagapaka, some of the residents are sitting close to the colony's entrance and others start to come out of their homes and gather around.

Pardeswara, Saraswati, Sushila, Laxmi, Santoshi and Sowmya all have stories similar to Leelavathi and Appalnarsimha. MGNREGA is important for sustenance and it is scarcely enough.

Would they work for more than 100 days if the scheme allowed for it? How many more days would they like to work for? We will work for as many days as we get work, is the common answer.

As things stand, most households in the village complete their 100 days of work in the first four months of the fiscal year. After that, work dries up. The data also tells a similar story. Demand and supply of work to households in the state falls sharply after the first four months of the fiscal, leaving these families with fewer options to earn.

From time to time, suggestions have been made to increase the work available to 200 days per household from the current 100 days. Budget constraints come in the way.

Budget 2022: Inadequate MGNREGA Budgets Add To Pandemic Distress

Activists who work closely with the scheme say that under prevailing conditions the scheme will continue to need much higher budgetary allocation.

The required budget for the scheme for the next fiscal year is about Rs 1.3 lakh crore, estimates Debmalya Nandy, activist at Sangharsh Morcha. As he explains it, if 6.5 crore households take work under the scheme for at least 70 days, at an average per person cost of Rs 292, the budget works out to Rs 1.3 lakh crore. If wage increments and arrears are accounted for, the funds needed would be Rs 1.5 lakh crore.

Jayati Ghosh, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the government is duty-bound to provide employment under MGNREGA up to 100 days if there is demand for it. Instead, successive governments, and especially the current government, have allowed budget allocation to dictate spending, which is against the law.

To be sure, governments do increase allocation for the scheme during the year but any interruption in the flow of funds can be harmful.

Interruption in fund flow means not enough work on the ground, Nandy said.

The real impact of these shortfalls and delays is felt by those dependent on the scheme.

Ask Appalnarsimha. Her daughter-in-law has just given birth to a baby, adding one more member to a struggling family of four and forcing the family to find other avenues to make money. "This season is the worst to find work. I recently found work for four days five kilometres away at Anakapally," she said. "But they have only paid me for two days. Even 20 more days of MGNREGA work and some more money for the work done will help."