States currently in poll mode have reported the highest increase in job numbers under the MGNREGA in the year that ended March 31, 2016. That may not surprise, but certainly goes against the scheme’s basic objective of providing guaranteed employment in public works to those needing it most. While Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam do have sizeable poor populations, the fact, however, is that they are not experiencing any major drought. The spurt in person-days employment under the MGNREGA in the three states — 37 per cent, 69 per cent and 134 per cent respectively over 2014-15 — has clearly had to do more with a pre-election push from “above” by the ruling parties than any distress-driven demand pull from “below”. True, Maharashtra also registered a 24 per cent rise, but its total 7.64 crore person-days generated was just over a fifth that of Tamil Nadu and a quarter of West Bengal, while even lower than the figures for Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Nearly a third of Maharashtra’s gram panchayats, in fact, incurred “nil expenditure” under the MGNREGA; that it happened in a terrible drought year speaks volumes about the state government’s commitment to the scheme.
The above numbers highlight an inherent design flaw in the MGNREGA: Although conceived as a demand/ distress-driven programme, its successful implementation has largely rested upon state-level governance capacity (Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Tripura) or political expediency (West Bengal). Thus, the total MGNREGA wage expenditure for 2015-16 worked out to around Rs 9,050 per poor person in Kerala and Rs 7,800 in Tamil Nadu, while being a mere Rs 315 for Bihar and Rs 475 for Uttar Pradesh. If the MGNREGA is neither helping the states worst-hit by drought nor those with the highest poverty incidence, there is a fundamental problem that must be addressed to make it a genuinely demand- and need-driven programme.
The time has probably come to allocate MGNREGA funds to states by linking it to their individual rural poor population numbers. Before the start of a financial year, the Centre can announce the allocation to each state and declare that any unspent amount would be automatically reallocated to those with the capacity to use this money. The very prospect of foregoing one’s entitlement — and letting the public know — would put pressure on the states to implement the MGNREGA better. Right now, many states do not register demand for employment even in times of widespread distress. They do this only because the MGNREGA rules require work to be provided within 15 days of demand registration, failing which they are entitled to unemployment benefits from the state. But when the Centre is making funds available that are still going unspent, this tactic will not sell. The states will, then, be compelled to respond to work demands from “below” — which is what the MGNREGA is meant to do.