The Central government has claimed that schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) “acted as a boon for the populace” in the pandemic years, when cities saw a reverse migration because of the lockdown. However, the Ministry of Rural Development’s (MoRD) Sixth Common Review Mission, which examines rural development schemes in seven States—Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Nagaland—and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, admits that their benefits did not reach significant pockets of the country.
The 32-member team’s review, held from February 17 to 28, focusses on the timely release of MGNREGS wage funds, demand for work, the status of unspent balances, skill training schemes for employment, rural housing and roads, manpower shortages, grievance redress systems, and so on.
The CRM’s overall evaluation of schemes implemented by States in collaboration with the Centre in selected gram panchayats reveals a mixed bag. Almost all States were concerned about the delay in MGNREGS wage payments and a lack of human resources at all levels to implement rural development programmes.
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In terms of the MGNREGS, there was a higher demand for work from 72 per cent more households in July 2020 than in the same period in the previous year and from 66 per cent more households in August 2021 than in the corresponding month in 2019. The demand “broke all records” with 5.53 crore households making use of the job guarantee scheme in the first four months of 2021-22. However, the report is critical of centrally designed schemes and policies that leave little scope for “customisation and flexibilty” and ignore local needs.
High and dry
In Andhra Pradesh’s tribal and dry regions, there was a demand to raise the number of MGNREGS employment days from 100 to 150, which indicates the extent of need.
Additionally, many backward and vulnerable tribally populated areas in the State were not included in the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana (rural roads scheme). Self-help groups led by women were successful, but older SHG members said it was hard to get loans.
Farmer Producer Organisations, a concept the Centre actively promotes to help small and marginal farmers gain access to credit and markets, were found charging high rates of interest. The retail trade training provided by the Rural Self Employment Training Institutes (RSTEI) was not well received by the trainees, most of whom were in the 18-22 age group and were there due to lack of choice. As much as Rs.20 crore was pending in arrears towards the training institutes.
In Arunachal Pradesh, there was a demand for 2.5 crore person-days under the MGNREGS, but the Ministry allocated only 1 crore person-days, that is, 40 days for every job card holder. Scheduled Tribe job card holders reported delays in wages since end-January 2022.
Under a new category-based payment system, State governments were required to create three separate Fund Transfer Orders for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. This created tensions between communities, as some social groups were reportedly paid earlier than others. A parliamentary panel in March 2022 recommended the discontinuation of this system of payment.
Sanctions under the Prime Minister Awas Yojana (PMAY, housing scheme) were made only till 2016-17 in the State and no pension had been disbursed since 2018-19 in the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP). The report also notes that the Centre’s share of Rs.300 a month for pension is inadequate.
For all the gram panchayats the team visited, there was only one RSTEI and that too with poor infrastructure. The report recommends that each district in the State have one RSTEI.
No biometric attendance
In the nine gram panchayats the team visited in Gujarat, none of the MGNREGS worksite locations had a biometric attendance system. Compared with the total number of job cards, there were not many active job cards. Wage-related delays were perhaps to blame for this. The report also notes that the daily wage of Rs.229 is extremely low compared with the industrial wages in these areas.
The team also found that there was nothing “model” about a PMAY model colony: they had no concrete roads, water pipelines or compound walls. In one panchayat, 50 per cent of the beneficiaries of the housing scheme were listed as “unknown”.
Applications for pensions under the NSAP in one village were rejected as applicants could not produce their BPL card numbers. In another gram panchayat, there was none at all who received old-age pension. A widow could not claim her pension as she did not have an Aadhaar card due to poor fingerprints. The CRM recommended the need to create awareness about these entitlements and periodic surveys to identify the aged, the widowed, the disabled, and the BPL beneficiaries.
According to the report, the availability of recent data for the identification of beneficiaries was a “major hurdle” because the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) numbers were outdated and Mission Antyodaya (to identify the poorest of the poor) was ineffective.
In Jharkhand, the team found that a large number of people had yet to be covered under the PMAY scheme. It also recommended that pensions under the NSAP could be doubled from the current Rs.1,000 (Rs.800 from the Centre).
The team, however, lauded the Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Rural Livelihoods Mission managed through SHGs. The advent of SHGs in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, it noted, had “brought smiles to the female population in the State”.
In Nagaland, the CRM team found that entrepreneurial activities by SHGs were low because of lack of awareness of loan availability from banks and poor market linkages. Other issues of concern here were low MGNREGS wages (Rs.212) and low monthly pension rates of Rs.500 (Rs.300 from the Centre).
The team evaluated eight gram panchayats in two districts of Karnataka and found that the MGNREGS needed to have more average person-days than its current 45 days because it is “the lifeline of the rural people and pivotal in providing wage employment opportunities, especially in the lean agricultural seasons”.
There was no awareness of Central pension schemes among beneficiaries and there was no social audit or redress of grievances in many places.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the team found there was a shortage of 50 lakh person-days in 2020-21 in the MGNREGS and that the wage rate of Rs.214 was “very meagre for [the] present living conditions and a lot lower than what was offered by private contractors which was Rs. 600-700”.
Need for empathy
In its review of NSAP, the team found huge exclusion errors for old-age pension; the widow pension scheme did not cover women under 40 years and even the disbursement to beneficiaries was done once in three months. Allocations under the SECC had mainly gone to Jammu and there was no allocation for the last three years under the PMAY in the Kashmir division.
Other than for MGNREGS, no social audit of rural development programmes was conducted. Although there was convergence between the MGNREGS scheme and other department schemes, it was difficult to get permission from the forest department for any work.
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“Given the geopolitical conditions and sensitivity of people on the issue of the withdrawal of Article 370, it is important to address the issues of concern to the people with empathy,” the report says.
In the latest global Multidimensional Poverty Index figures released by the United Nations, India ranks 62 among 107 countries, only slightly better than a few of its South Asian neighbours. While identifying gaps and recommending better wages, pensions, and induction of regular and trained staff, the report fails to address budgetary inadequacies, which lie at the root of the problem.
In a country where the majority rely on informal forms of employment, the unequal distribution of productive assets needs to be addressed for poverty eradication. Even as ameliorative measures, the outreach and benefits of the existing rural development schemes are inadequate, as the CRM’s review report shows.
- A 32-member team reviewed the Ministry of Rural Development’s rural development schemes in seven States—Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Nagaland—and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
- The Sixth Common Review Mission admits that the benefits of the rural development schemes did not reach significant pockets of the country.
- Almost all States were concerned about the delay in MGNREGS wage payments and a lack of human resources at all levels to implement rural development programmes.