New Delhi: Ahead of the national elections later this year, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government proposes to extend the scope of its hugely popular rural employment guarantee scheme to work carried out on land owned by small and marginal farmers.
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Two people familiar with the developments, but who did not want to be identified, also said the government may announce new spending plans, especially for the rural sector, in the interim budget due later this month.
Coming as it does in the backdrop of the record Rs65,000 crore farm loan waiver in 2008, the government hopes to improve its profile among rural voters, who elect at least 400 of the 543 members in the Lok Sabha.
According to a senior minister, the government is looking to expand the scope of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), such that even work carried out on the lands of small and marginal farmers, such as creation of minor irrigation facilities, will be covered under the programme. So far, the scheme permitted only such work done on lands owned by scheduled castes or on community land.
NREGA, which was launched in 2006 and covers 596 rural districts, has benefited 35.8 million households so far. It guarantees one member of each family employment for at least 100 days every year.
“Details have not yet been worked out,” said the minister, and added that he was not sure if it would be included in the interim budget, which is to be presented in the Lok Sabha on 16 February.
Kerala finance minister Thomas Isaac said the state had demanded, during a discussion on Plan allocation with the Planning Commission earlier this week, that replantation, land and water development activities by small and marginal households and coconut husk collection should be brought under NREGA.
“The Planning Commission agreed to cooperate,” Isaac said.
According to a top official in the rural development ministry, the budget, which is expected to be presented by Pranab Mukherjee, who is in charge of the finance ministry till Prime Minister Manmohan Singh returns to his work after his bypass surgery, will focus on employment generation in the rural sector.
“There will be allocation for self-employment (programme) Swarnjayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) in the budget,” said the official. The scheme, formed to cover the 45 million rural households that are below the poverty line, has already covered 29 million people in the decade since its inception in 1999.
Another senior cabinet minister has already signalled that the government would announce “some policy decisions” in the interim budget.
Mint had reported on 17 January that the government may use the interim budget to make some populist pronouncements. The two-week budget session begins on 12 February and elections are due before May.
“This will be (the) last chance we get to dole out some popular and welfare programmes. The government will definitely make use of it,” another senior cabinet minister, who also did not want to be named, said.
This was also reiterated by home minister P. Chidambaram at a press conference to announce the decisions of the cabinet meeting held on Thursday.
“I am told that Mr (Pranab) Mukherjee, as the finance minister, will present the vote- on-account. Constitutionally, there is no bar. But what the minister will do I cannot say,” Chidambaram said when asked if the government can announce policy measures to stimulate the economy in the vote-on-account.
Queried if the government was considering another stimulus package for the remaining months of this fiscal year, as sought by the commerce ministry, he said: “Wait till February 16, there may be one or there may not be one.”
Once the elections are announced, the code of conduct—monitored by the Election Commission of India, the independent agency that conducts polls—will come into effect and bar the government from making any policy announcements.
PTI contributed to this story.