The massive push to capital expenditure remains a highlight of the Union Budget 2022-23 and is expected to provide some turbo power to the Centre’s plan to generate employment in the midst of a pandemic. Yet, its indifference to the country’s biggest rural employment scheme remains baffling.
An allocation of Rs 73,000 towards MGNREGA for FY 2022-23 means the provision has not changed as compared to the previous fiscal. For a scheme that has saved lives and livelihoods of millions at a time when the world went topsy-turvy, the Centre’s approach to MGNREGA has left many dumbfounded. Work demands under the scheme peak across the country in May and June, the pre-monsoon months. In 2019, the demand for jobs stood a little over three crore in June.
With the pandemic sending millions home in an unprecedented reverse migration, 2020 saw the demand soar past six crore the same month. Last year, it stabilised to about 4.6 crore. With the economy attempting to return to normal amidst a third wave, the expectation for a higher allocation to MGNREGA was greater. In 2020-21, rural employment had received Rs 1.1 lakh crore, its highest allocation, to cover wages of over 7.5 crore households.
The next year, the budgetary estimate dropped to Rs 73,000 crore, registering a 34% fall. However, the revised estimate saw the figure at Rs 98,000 crore in view of demand for works across rural India and payment. Yet, massive payment delays have been noticed. NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a national outfit that fights for rural livelihood, claims the Centre may have to provision Rs 18,000 crore towards pendencies of past years, which will leave barely about Rs 56,000 crore for the ensuing fiscal, putting the rural employment programme in acute financial constraints. Another problem is the gulf between lower work availability and higher work demand.
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik was among the few who pointed this out, saying that a reduction in allocation during the pandemic will hit the poor. Under such a scenario, the stagnated allocation to MGNREGA calls for a relook. In its Gati Shakti mode, India cannot afford to leave its poorest lot in the lurch.