“Given the nature of the crisis, that (RE) is when the government will take a call. We don’t apprehend a problem," said the official.
The Centre has released Rs 7,190 crore or 12% of the FY21 budget outlay for the rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) since April 1, in what underscored the current priority of alleviating the distress of the rural poor, most affected by the lockdown. In fact, in the final days of March, it had cleared a large part of the wage-and-material payment arrears to states, amounting to some Rs 12,000 crore, which also helped the latter to address the rural distress in a timely manner.
In the Budget for 2020-21, a total of Rs 61,500 crore has been earmarked under MGNREGA, down from a revised outlay of Rs 71,002 crore in 2019-20 and Rs 61,815 crore spent in 2018-19. The outlay for the scheme, which seldom lacks a demand push, used to get revised upwards from the initially budgeted level since the inception.
However, official sources told FE that government might not be inclined to include agricultural work like reaping and harvesting of crops such as wheat and rice under MGNREGA on ground that such woks are not tangible and measurable and as such, against the scheme’s objective of strengthening rural livelihood resource through creation of productive and durable assets.
Instead, in view of the current socio-economic situation arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Narendra Modi-led government will, within a couple of weeks, issue guidelines to broaden the scope of works on a pilot basis within the framework of MGNREGA Act, 2015. Creation of individual or community-led ‘nutri-gardens’ (kitchen gardens) might be an inclusion, a senior government official said.
“During the ongoing lockdown period, our immediate targets are clearing all wage arrears of MGNREGA workers and maximising individual-oriented beneficiary works. We have brought to zero all wage arrears that were there for February and March. Around 19.3 lakh person days have been created so far in the current fiscal on individual oriented beneficiary works. We will try to enhance the number as much as possible,” the official said.
Assuming that the spectre of Covid-19 would continue to haunt the country following the withdrawal of lockdown period, the government would work on designing the MGNREGA programme to cater to a significantly large number of beneficiaries. In 2019-20, there were around 5.5 crore active workers under MGNREGA. The target would be to enhance the number to over eight crore in the current fiscal.
The official said funds should not be a concern for the scheme as the outlay could be revised at the RE (revised estimate) level. In 2019-20, MGNREGA got an additional Rs 11,000 crore, above the original budget estimate. “Given the nature of the crisis, that (RE) is when the government will take a call. We don’t apprehend a problem,” said the official.
Under MGNREGA water conservation, drought proofing (including afforestation and tree plantation), micro and minor irrigation programmes, horticulture plantation, vermi compost and many others durable and sustainable works get priority.
“We are also looking at new works that can be included in the list of permissible works, which would at the same time, ensure social distancing and create durable assets simultaneously. We are still brainstorming on that. One possible area is ‘nutri garden’ on a large scale,” the official said.