NEW DELHI: Elected representatives, activists and workers from all over India recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to bring his immediate attention to the challenges faced by MGNREGA, or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The signatories include former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Congress MP Digvijay Singh, Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj India, Rajya Sabha MP Sitaram Yechury.

The letter demands the government should ensure that statutory NREGA wages are not lower than the minimum wage in any state; provide adequate and timely funds for the work demanded; and remove all administrative and technical constraints.

At a press conference held in New Delhi on January 4, economist and political commentator Prabhat Patnaik described NREGA as being fundamentally different from all other anti-poverty programs, as it confers an economic right on the people.

“It was an act of Parliament, passed unanimously by all parties, which not only sanctioned expenditure for employment but made it employment driven. It means people had a right to one hundred days of employment if they so demanded,” Patnaik said.

The NDA 2 government has neglected and tried to render MGNREGA ineffective in numerous ways - for instance by imposing a funds crunch on the scheme such that one-fifth of the funds are now spent just on clearing past dues.

. The Act is facing a severe fund crunch with 99% of the year’s allocation already exhausted.

. No additional funds are being approved as per the Management Information System set up under the Act.

. Studies reveal the allocation of MGNREGA as a percentage of GDP declined from 0.51% in 2010-11 to 0.38% in 2017-18, according to the RBI’s Handbook of Statistics on the Indian Economy.

Deepender Singh Hooda, Lok Sabha MP from Haryana, pointed to the acute decline in the scale of work because of the shortage of funds. “The decline in MGNREGA work is astronomical. In my area in Jhajjar 1,570 households were working under NREGA in 2013-15. This year only 26 households got to work for 100 days as guaranteed.”

Rajeev Gowda, Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka, said “the Karnataka government is still waiting for the Centre to release Rs 1500 crore so we can pay lakhs of workers for work completed months ago.”

MGNREGA was launched in 2006 as a demand-driven employment guarantee programme for the rural poor. According to a report by the National Council of Applied Economic Research, a 25 percent poverty decline was observed among families participating in the scheme in its first year of operation.

A National Sample Survey Office report estimates that 40 percent of the total households employed under MGNREGA every year belong to SC or ST communities. And that 82 percent of NREGA workers belong to the low income group.

In her statement at the press conference in Delhi development economist Jayati Ghosh said that “the multiplier effect of MGNREGA is as high as 4 in some areas - so spending Rs 100 generates Rs 400 more.”

A research study reported that in 2016-18

. Out of 3,446 Panchayats across 10 states and 90 lakh records analysed

. The central government took 50 days on average to confer the wages of MGNREGA workers after the completion of work

. Whereas the law states that wages are to be conferred within 15 days of completion of work. And moreover,

. Only 21% of wages were paid within the stipulated 15 days in 2016-17 and 32% in the first half of 2017-18, contrary to the government’s claim of 94 percent.

Workers and worker representatives from all over India who use NREGA to enact their right to employment highlighted ground level problems at the press conference:

Afsana from Latehar, Jharkhand said that “the biggest issue witnessed by workers is of Pragya Kendra (Customer Service) from where they are supposed to withdraw their money. It lacks a passbook system for their account and because there is no record proof the cashier sometimes cheats them.”

Researcher Ashish Ranjan described the situation in Bihar: “Though central governments claim an increase in NREGA wages every year, in reality for the past four years the NREGA wage in Bihar has not been increased.

“The reason being that with the central government not giving its own statutory minimum wage, the state government tried to provide it to everyone. But now even the state government has stopped increasing its share in NREGA expenditure. The situation is the same in Rajasthan, Assam, UP and Jharkhand,” said Ranjan.

Sanjay Sahani, the Bihar representative of the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan, reported that six FIRs were concurrently filed in the state to prevent MGNREGA workers from uniting and demanding work. “Why were FIRs filed when it is in the law for us to work and get our wages?”

Sahani also pointed out the benefits of the scheme: “I was able to settle in my village because of this Act, just like 70,000 other people in my district. But due to its current dysfunctioning we are facing a big crisis. Even when not being implemented properly, if it’s able to benefit us so much, imagine the wonders it would do if the current problems were rectified.”

Reena from Seetapur, Uttar Pradesh described how “even after all the work is done, the labourers aren’t provided their income. The payment stipulated to be transferred in 15 days takes up to six months.

Jayati Ghosh also pointed to the involvement of women in MGNREGA, saying, “In many states about 70% of the employment went to women, which meant that women’s wages also rose, because this is a program that gives equal wages for equal work. Thus it caused a big decline in the gender wage gap. It improved women’s access to work much more than the Jan Dhan bank account scheme.”

Anandita, associated with the Right to Work Campaign, mentioned how people demanding work under MGNREGA are told that no work opportunities have opened up. “Putting a ceiling on the demand for work is a technique used by the government to limit the program,” she said.

Studies indicate that while a quarter of rural households participate in the programme, nearly 60% of them would have liked to work more days, but are unable to find work. This widespread and illegal direct rationing on the part of governments is estimated to affect 29% of rural households.