New Delhi: The Union government’s flagship rural jobs scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), may be used to cut the costs of farming if a proposal that is being drafted is accepted.

A panel of chief ministers led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, which met in the capital on Thursday, explored ways of using the scheme to cut pre-sowing and post-harvest farming costs and improving efficiency in agriculture, according to federal policy think tank NITI Aayog, which hosted the event.

The panel is looking at ways of cutting cultivation costs, boosting production through efficient use of water and other resources, raising farmer price through incentives such as market infrastructure, reviving farm land hit by natural hazards and diversifying farming, it said.

MGNREGS is a massive welfare programme, which spent 55,000 crore in 2017-18 to give 100 days of work to every rural labourer who signed up for unskilled manual work. According to official records available online, over 8.7 million people were expected to sign up for work on Thursday at different sites. The chief ministers’ panel plans to align the objective of the scheme—providing rural jobs and creation of durable assets—to the requirements of the agriculture sector by utilizing the labour in farming-related activities and in building the assets needed in farming.

Experts said that MGNREGS has alredy been converged with many other activities that may be related to farming. “In many places, MGNREGS wages may be higher than the minimum wages. Greater convergence of the scheme with agriculture activities may, therefore, not help in lowering the overall cost of agriculture," said N.R. Bhanumurthy, professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, a think tank. Bhanumurthy said the agriculture sector is currently facing challenges in areas of marketing and price discovery.

The panel, which consists of the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, and Sikkim, besides Madhya Pradesh, decided that the rights of labourers have to be protected and the “asset creation’’ spirit of the scheme has to be maintained.

It will hold meetings at Patna, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Guwahati and New Delhi in the coming weeks to seek the views of experts, farmers and state officials. Senior officials from NITI Aayog, including member (agriculture) Ramesh Chand and chief executive officer Amitabh Kant, also took part in the discussions.

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