In order to kickstart the rural economy in both, the farm and non-farm segments, the Central government granted a series of relaxations in the second phase of nationwide lockdown. However, experts said unless the implementation is monitored properly at the ground level, much of the easing out could just remain on paper.
In the case of MGNREGA, the Central government has imposed strict social distancing norms while allowing all kinds of works, with priority to be given to water conservation and irrigation activities. This assumes significance in view of the forthcoming monsoon season.
MNREGA is one of the big sources of rural employment for landless labour, providing jobs to about 50-60 million households every year in rural India.
The Centre has also allowed dovetailing of existing central and state government schemes on irrigation and water conservation with MGNREGA to create more employment opportunities in the rural areas which is seeing a massive influx of migrants from urban India in the last few weeks.
According to some estimates, around 500,000-600,000 urban migrants have shifted to rural areas after the Covid-19 lockdown, a large number of them on foot.
That apart, the MHA guidelines have allowed industrial activity in rural areas (those falling outside municipal limits), along with construction activities and working of brick kilns.
Construction of rural roads, buildings and other activities has also been permitted under the revised set of relaxations, along with other work in MSMEs.
However, experts said much of this will depend on how states respond to this because in case of schemes like MGNREGA, it is the states which have to show a lot of initiatives.
Also, when worksites themselves are closed and people are scared to move out from their homes, it remains to be seen how many workers actually turn up to work under MGNREGA.
“And, those who turn up will be really desperate for work because in normal conditions no one will prefer to venture out,” said Reetika Khera, economist and a member of the faculty at Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Ahmedabad,
She said in many cases even if the worksite is opened, the laborers don’t get paid for months negating the entire exercise of allowing MGNREGA work to start.
“Also, it has been seen that how many of the households actually get 100 days of work in a year because the average employment is far less at around 48-49 days of work,” Khera said.
She said to get the promised Rs 2000 per month as per the new MGNREGA wages for 2020-21 of Rs 209.27, a labour has to get work for minimum 10 days in a month, while so far in 2020-21, the average days of employment that a MGNREGA household is just around 7.7 days, which is among the lowest in last several years.
In 2020-21, the approved labour budget for the scheme is 280.76 crore persondays, which is 1.44 per cent higher than 2019-20, but many experts say that approved labour budget is a very watered down version of what is demanded by the states. So far in April, just around 0.18 crore persondays of work has been generated under MGNREGA.
For 2020-21, the Central government has fixed a budget of Rs 60,000 crore under MGNREGA, which is almost 13 per cent less than the revised estimate of 2019-20.
It also remains to be seen how states start rural road construction work following the easing of norms. The Central government has allocated Rs 19,000 crore for the rural roads programme in 2020-21
“All these relaxations are good and should help in pushing up the rural non-farm economy but remains to be seen how much gets actually implemented on the ground,” said Mahendra Dev, Director of Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research.
He said availability of labour has been one of the major complaints of the rural sector and the current set of relaxation are aimed to a large extent to address particularly, the dovetailing of MGNREGA labour for central and state government irrigation and water conservation schemes.
The non-farm sector in rural India contributed bulk of the income in agriculture household as per the NABARD financial inclusion survey of 2016-17.