New Delhi: At a time when rural distress is on the rise, the country is seeing a steep decline in rural population claiming employment under the 10-year-old Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Data available on the rural development ministry website shows that in the last fiscal year, households that completed 100 days of wage employment—the minimum guaranteed under MGNREGS—declined by 50%. It was 2.444 million in 2014-15 against 5.173 million in 2013-14.

Experts believe that demand for rural jobs, especially given growing rural distress, could not have declined. Instead, they argue, administrative bottlenecks have stifled the programme’s benefits.

The tragic suicide by a Rajasthan farmer in Delhi on Wednesday has put the spotlight on the growing agrarian crisis. Not only did farmers have to deal with drought-like conditions last year, they also witnessed a slump in output prices after the end of the global commodity super cycle. With the Met department forecasting another year of sub-par monsoon rainfall, the outlook is only likely to worsen.

The rural development ministry website further reveals that average days of employment provided per household nationally in 2012-13 was 46.2, but this fell to 39.99 in 2014-15.

Similarly, the number of person days—the number of people getting work multiplied by the number of days of work—dropped from 2.3 billion in 2012-13 to 1.6 billion in 2014-15. The decline was uniform across states.

In Andhra Pradesh, the number of person days came down from 327 million in 2012-13 to 154 million in 2014-15, in Bihar from 94 million to 37 million, in Karnataka from 61 million to 43 million, in Maharashtra from 87 million to 60 million, in Rajasthan from 220 million to 168 million and in Uttar Pradesh from 141 million to 130 million.

Experts believe that the decline in the number of work days for the rural poor has been the result of neglect of the programme by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which launched the scheme in 2005. That’s something which the new regime, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has not revisited.

According to experts, the decline in the work days will only worsen agrarian distress, especially at a time when farmers are struggling with crop damage due to unseasonal rains and the India Meteorological Department on Wednesday has forecast below-normal monsoon rains.

“The NDA is not entirely to blame. This (steep reduction) was to be expected because the previous UPA government was following a policy of neglect from 2011-12 onwards," said Himanshu, an associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University .

“The UPA government had budgetary constraints and a burgeoning fiscal deficit. So this kind of spending got a backseat," he said.

“At a time when the rural economy is suffering, the (NDA) government should be looking at an increase in spending on the rural employment guarantee scheme," said Himanshu, who is also a Mint columnist.

The budget for the rural employment guarantee scheme declined from 40,100 crore in 2010-11 to a low of 33,000 crore in 2013-14 during the second five-year term of the UPA.

In 2014-15, the money allocated for the rural employment programme by the NDA government increased marginally to 34,000 crore; this was further raised to 34,699 crore in the current fiscal, with finance minister Arun Jaitley promising another 5,000 crore provided funds are available.

“It doesn’t make sense to have any ifs and buts on funding this programme that is an Act passed by the parliament," Himanshu said.

“If the budget remains the same but you have an increase in wages and there is no expansion in the type of work that can be undertaken, the programme is doomed. In the past several years of both the UPA and the NDA, there has been no work given to people demanding it because of a lack of funds."

Launched in 2005, the rural employment programme has been a key source of livelihood for millions of rural households. The programme guarantees up to 100 days of unskilled work in a year to every rural household and was credited with raising rural household incomes.

Economists say that the reduction in the number of persondays means lower rural incomes that will in turn depress rural demand for various goods and services. Taken together with predictions for a weak monsoon, this could have an adverse impact on the national economy.

To cushion against this, state governments need to think of proactive social sector schemes, said Madan Sabnavis, chief economist and general manager of CARE Ratings, a rating agency. “Today, when we talk of weak monsoon, it is up to the state governments to increase spending in the social sector to cushion against agrarian distress", given that the central government has agreed to implement recommendations of the fourteenth Finance Commission, which increased states’ share of central tax revenue from 32% to 42%, he said.

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