Print edition : December 26, 2014

Manik Sarkar: "Tripura has remained number one" in work generation. Photo: V. Sudershan

Interview with Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura.

ON November 26, Manik Sarkar, the four-time Chief Minister of Tripura, was in New Delhi to take part in a protest organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) against the proposed cuts in the budgetary provisions for Tripura under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Tripura, the only State ruled by the Left in the country, won an award for best performance under the MGNREGS for providing the maximum number of mandays of work. Manik Sarkar, a CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, wrote to the Prime Minister twice explaining the hardship the State would face in view of the budgetary cuts. He received an acknowledgement but no reply. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

The Union government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be keen on restructuring the MGNREGS. What are the implications of such a move?

As per the provisions of the Act, it is a demand-driven scheme. Those who register their names should be given work within 15 days. If the authorities fail to provide work, then compensation has to be given. The Narendra Modi government is changing the approach. This cannot be changed through an administrative order. It is an Act of Parliament. I have written two letters to the Prime Minister. The objective of the Act is to reduce poverty, which will in turn check malnutrition and migration from rural to urban areas. The decision of the government is not demand-driven but allocation-driven as per the budget. The requirement is Rs.60,000 crore for 100 days [of work]. In 2013-14, the Congress government allocated Rs.33,000 crore; in 2009-10, the allocation was Rs.39,000 crore, and for 2014-15 it is Rs.34,000 crore. With this amount, only about 44 days of work can be generated.

There are reports about increasing the material-labour ratio, which will, without a commensurate increase in funds, adversely affect the number of wage employment. These steps will have serious consequences for the vulnerable sections—the Scheduled Castes [S.Cs], the Scheduled Tribes [S.Ts], the Other Backward Classes [OBCs] and the religious minorities—and defeat the very purpose of providing them protection against exploitation. We had hoped that the new government would increase the wage rate, expanding the basket of eligible works with a focus on the creation of infrastructure and productive and durable assets in rural areas. But the steps taken indicate otherwise.

Tripura has managed to generate employment for an average number of 87 mandays. Will the budgetary cut impact this record?

For the past three years, Tripura has remained number one [in work generation under the MGNREGS]. In 2011-12, we generated 86 mandays, in 2012-13, it was 87, and in 2013-14, we generated 88 days of work. The MGNREGS is a demand-driven scheme and the labour needs are finalised jointly by the Central and State governments. The labour budget approved earlier in the year for Tripura was estimated at Rs.1,406.96 crore. This came down to Rs.652 crore, which is a decrease of 45-46 per cent. This is much less than what Tripura received in 2013-14, which was Rs.943.66 crore. The reduced budget will affect unfinished works, including infrastructure works. Naturally, the workers will not get wages. It will create a lot of hardship, including affecting the purchasing capacity. Even the market will be affected. This will have an effect on the overall economy. While the budget for Tripura has been reduced, the allocation to some States such as Rajasthan, West Bengal, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu has increased significantly.

Why is there so much dependence on the MGNREGS? Is the State not in a position to raise resources or generate employment on its own?

Our kitty is very small. We are dependent on the Central government. People are poor here. We cannot tax them. Barring a handful of States, all other States face a similar problem. I don’t know why they are not raising it with the Central government. If they have any feeling for their people, they will protest. But I am surprised they are silent. We are not raising it out of any personal interest but for the sake of the poor and common people.

Do you think the Act should be amended? One of the reasons given for altering the labour-material ratio is that long-term assets are not being created. The government has launched other anti-poverty measures such as the Jan Dhan Yojana.

The Act should be strengthened in its existing form. The employment generated should not be confined to 100 days. It should be extended to 200 days and the rate of wages should be augmented. The scope of work should be widened. It is mainly unskilled work. If one opts for skilled work, then the poor will not get work. The contractors will benefit. It is true that employment cannot be generated every time by cutting the earth. But it is not the right time.

Our labour budget was approved in February. Because we exerted pressure, the Centre released 57 per cent of the funds. By now, the second instalment for the remaining part of the financial year should have arrived. It has not come yet. The non-release of funds will create a crisis in the rural areas as the agricultural season is over and the requirement for wage employment through the MGNREGS will increase in the coming months. The bulk of the money goes to the gram panchayats. The plan of action is prepared by the gram, block and district panchayats and approved by the Central government. They are the main instruments and are vibrant in Tripura. They prepare the plans with enthusiasm—whether it is construction of roads, drains and culverts, reclamation of waterbodies or building anganwadi centres. These are permanent assets. Road and irrigation works can help boost the economy too. We have been creating permanent assets. Regular checks are conducted by the administration at every level and our Ministers, including myself, go to the grass roots and meet beneficiaries. There is constant monitoring. Getting budgetary funds is not our sole objective and practice. We get work done standing at the worksite.

There is much talk about the Jan Dhan Yojana. It is a good thing to have bank accounts. But what is the use of an account if one does not have money to arrange for food. Without food, will I go and deposit the money? I have inaugurated the scheme in the State, but I do not know how it will benefit the poor.

The Left parties have been at the forefront of opposing the dilution of the scheme and now other parties have started speaking up. A section of “experts”, however, doubt the effectiveness of the scheme.

Yes, parties such as the Congress should open their mouths. The Congress was forced to launch the scheme during the United Progressive Alliance’s first tenure [2004-09]. It is a different story how and why the UPA launched the scheme, but there is no denying that it was implemented by it. It was not serious [about its implementation]. That is why the entire amount required was never released and less employment was generated. The UPA never augmented the budget of the States and it was never in a mood to encourage the scheme. The experts represent a small group—the owning class, which is close to the BJP. The attack on the MGNREGS is mainly a “class” attack [attack on the working class].