Insights into Editorial: The solution is universal
Rural distress has hit unprecedented levels. According to unofficial news reports, unemployment is the highest in 45 years.
To allay some misgivings of the distress, one of the announcements in the Budget speech was that “vulnerable landholding farmer families, having cultivable land up to 2 hectares, will be provided direct income support at the rate of Rs. 6,000 per year”.
This cash transfer scheme has been called Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN). The Ministry of Agriculture has written to State governments to prepare a database of all eligible beneficiaries along with their Aadhaar numbers, and update land records “expeditiously”.
The letter further states that changes in land records after February 1, 2019 shall not be considered for this scheme.
However, lets look at a comparison between MGNREGA and PM-KISAN:
PM-KISAN is a targeted cash transfer programme and MGNREGA is a universal programme.
While Rs.75,000 crore has been earmarked for PM-KISAN scheme, the MGNREGA continues to be pushed to a severe crisis.
The MGNREGA allocation for 2019-20 is Rs.60,000 crore, lower than the revised budget of Rs.61,084 crore in 2018-19.
In the last four years, on an average, around 20% of the Budget allocation has been unpaid pending payments from previous years.
Thus, subtracting the pending liabilities, in real terms, the Budget allocation has been lower than 2010-11.
- Undoubtedly, farmers’ distress needs urgent attention but let’s see if the PM-KISAN is a reasonable solution.
- Let us first compare some basic numbers with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
- A month of MGNREGA earnings for a household is more than a year’s income support through PM-KISAN anywhere in the country.
- For example, if two members of a household in Jharkhand work under MGNREGA for 30 days, they would earn Rs.10,080 and a household of two in Haryana would earn Rs.16,860 in 30 days.
- Jharkhand has the lowest daily MGNREGA wage rate, and Haryana the highest.
- Any rural household willing to do manual work is eligible under the Act. According to the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census, around 40% of rural households are landless and depend on manual labour.
- The landless can earn through the MGNREGA but are not eligible for the PM-KISAN scheme. Notwithstanding the meagre amount, the PM-KISAN might be pitting the landless against a small farmer.
- Further, it is unclear how tenant farmers, those without titles, and women farmers would be within the ambit of the scheme.
Improvement in Implementation of MGNREGS will be the need of the hour:
There are important lessons to be learned from the MGNREGA implementation.
- In the last four years alone, more than ₹1,300 crore of the MGNREGS wage payments have been rejected due to technical errors such as incorrect account numbers or faulty Aadhaar mapping.
- There have been no clear national guidelines to rectify these. There are numerous cases of MGNREGS payments getting diverted to Airtel wallets and ICICI bank accounts.
- In a recently concluded survey on common service centres in Jharkhand for Aadhaar-based payments, it was found that 42% of the biometric authentications failed in the first attempt, compelling them to come later.
- Supreme Court orders, the Centre alone has been causing a delay of more than 50 days in disbursing wages.
- Several MGNREGA payments have been rejected, diverted, or frozen as a fault in their implementation levels.
- This continued harassment faced by people would have been a more humane question to address rather than brushing them aside as “teething problems” and build a new scheme on similar shaky platforms.
- It’s creditable that timely generation of pay-orders have improved, but contrary to the Centre’s claims, less than a third of the payments were made on time.
- MGNREGA funds will be electronically transferred to the beneficiary’s bank account by Government of India through State Notional Account on a pattern similar to MGNREGS.
- The Centre has frequently tinkered with the wage payments system in the MGNREGA.
The MGNREGA is neither an income support programme nor just an asset creation programme but it has the principles of combination of both to strengthen the rural economy as well as democracy.
MGNREGA works have demonstrably strong multiplier effects are yet another reason to improve its implementation.
It is a labour programme meant to strengthen participatory democracy through community works. It is a legislative mechanism to strengthen the constitutional principle of the right to life.
The success of the PM-KISAN is contingent on there being reliable digital land records and reliable rural banking infrastructure both are questionable at best.
In an employment programme, adequacy of fund allocation and respectable wages are crucial, so meaningless claims of “highest ever allocation” and other dubious claims through a management information system are unhealthy for democracy.
There is also substantial evidence to demonstrate that universal schemes are less prone to corruption than targeted schemes.
In targeted programmes, it is very common to have errors of exclusion, i.e., genuine beneficiaries get left out. Such errors go unrecorded and people continue to be left out.
It is in some of these contexts that strengthening an existing universal programme such as the MGNREGA would have been a prudent move instead of introducing a hasty targeted cash transfer programme.
At a time of such acute distress, there is a need to the Central government to improve the existing universal infrastructure of the MGNREGA before plunging into a programme pretending to augment farmers’ income.