New Delhi: Although reeling under a severe monsoon deficit for the second year in a row, the Marathwada region of Maharashtra has seen a surprise fall in demand for jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS)—the result, said experts, of years of government neglect, low wages and a shortage of jobs.

Normally during rural distress, there is a spurt in demand for jobs under the social safety scheme that guarantees a minimum of 100 days’ employment. Marathwada is bucking this trend, prompting experts to turn on the government.

According to data published on the Union rural development ministry’s website, the number of person-days of work under the programme in the months of June, July and August fell by 28% in 2015 compared with the same three months in the previous year. Aurangabad and Hingoli were the districts that saw the sharpest fall in the number of person days in 2015—at 59.5% and 60.6%, respectively—compared with 2014. The rainfall deficit was 33% in Aurangabad and 43% in Hingoli as on 11 September.

In fact, barring Osmanabad and Parbhani, all the districts in Marathwada have seen a decline in person-days of work—this in a region where 600 farmers have allegedly committed suicide between January and August alone this year.

Marathwada is made up of eight districts—Aurangabad, Beed, Hingoli, Jalna, Latur, Nanded, Osmanabad and Parbhani.

MGNREGS was launched by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2006 with the aim of mitigating rural distress by guaranteeing a minimum of 100 days’ employment to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.

The monsoon as on 10 September was 15% deficit nationally; in 2014-15, the rainfall was 12% deficient. In the Marathwada region, the monsoon is 45% deficient this year, according to data available on 12 September with the weather department; in 2014, the corresponding figure was 42%.

“Marathwada is considered a drought-prone area. This is because of its physio-graphic position due to which after the monsoon has passed Goa and the Konkan area (western Maharashtra), not much rainfall reaches this region," which is in the interiors of the state, said N. Chattopadhyay, deputy director general of the agricultural meteorology division at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi. “We call these dry farming tracts," he added.

Government officials overseeing MGNREGS in New Delhi and Maharashtra, however, said jobs are being given to those demanding work as the programme is demand-driven.

Experts differed. Himanshu, an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, blamed the crisis on what he called the general neglect of MGNREGS by the Union government in the past few years. “Since 2009-10, the budget for the programme has declined almost by half in real terms. MGNREGS wages are lower than the minimum wages in the state, so people are moving away from the programme," he said. But this, he said, this was a country-wide problem and not Maharashtra-specific.

In New Delhi, officials at the rural development ministry cautioned against reaching any hasty conclusions as to whether the programme had been ineffective in dealing with the agrarian distress in Marathwada.

“The programme could be maximized in terms of utilization of funds, but Maharashtra had performed better than other states. We have disbursed 70% of the budget to the states. We have conveyed to the states that money is no problem," one of the officials said, requesting anonymity.

But in drought-hit Parbani district, Manik Kadam, headman of Arvi village with a population of about 2,400, corroborated the story told by the numbers.

“This is the reality that we are living. Here, there are no jobs that are being given to the people of my village under MGNREGs even if we ask for them," Kadam said by phone from Arvi. “People are leaving my village and others nearby for places like Nashik and Pune for jobs. The rains have been bad this year. About 50 people left Arvi last week and another 50 are set to leave in another few days. There are only old people left in my village now," he said.

In the state capital Mumbai, Prabhakar Deshmukh, principal secretary for water conservation and employment guarantee, refuted charges that the Maharashtra government had been slow to respond to the worsening drought and in giving jobs under the employment guarantee scheme to those who demanded it.

“At the end of August, around 12 million workers were given jobs under the programme. Of these, more than 50,000 were from Marathwada region," Deshmukh said.

“Due to drought, there will be hardly any work available in the fields in rabi season, so we expect increase in demand for work under NREGS from October onwards," he added.

Experts dismissed the argument.

“MGNREGS was crafted to give jobs to people during the lean agricultural season and during floods and drought when crop damage is high. There is a list of 30-odd activities that are taken up under the programme. So to say that there is less demand between June and August and more demand later is wrong," said N.C. Saxena, a former rural development secretary. “The reality is that there is lots of demand, but no jobs available," he said.

Nikita Mehta in New Delhi and Makarand Gadgil in Mumbai contributed to this story.

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