Suspension of MGNREGS grants to six districts was wrong, but State Government's planning and implementation is far worse.
Bimal Prasad Pandia/Bhubaneswar
Putting an end to a week-long bickering, the Central Government did release 170 crore rupees of NREGS central share grant for six districts on 24th June. Earlier on 10th June, it had released 530 Crore rupees for the other 24 districts of Orissa. While releasing the central share for 24 districts the Central Government had said "no funds should be released to 6 districts viz. Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur, and Rayagada which are presently under CBI investigation". Condemnations poured in, quite rightly, from different quarters in protest against the decision to deny central share to the six districts.
The Orissa Government, too, seized the opportunity to portray another instance of 'step-motherly treatment'. The argument was that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is not like any other scheme where you can suspend further grants where an investigation of criminal wrongdoings is on. The MGNREGS is different as it gives a household the right to seek and get wage employment of 100 days in a year.
In other words, the Government is bound by the Constitution to provide wage employment for at least 100 days to a job seeking household. This obligation probably allowed the State Government to lodge a strong protest which even threatened, in a letter sent on 20th June, that "if funds are not received from the Central Government for 6 districts, the State Government should not be made liable for payment of unemployment allowance". With the release of first instalment of grants to all 30 districts, the hullabaloo might have subsided but it has revealed many a gaps in the manner MGNREGS is being implemented in Orissa.
Bottom to top approach goes for a toss. Labour budget projection clearly defies the bottom to top approach and end up exposing glaring gaps in projection and actual demand.
Under Section 14(6) of the Act, the District Programme Coordinator or the District Collector is required to prepare a 'labour budget' by the end of December for the next financial year.
The operational guideline clearly instructs that the 'Gramsabha' will estimate labour demand, which will subsequently be cumulated at Panchayat, Block and District levels. Thus it makes it mandatory to have village to district to State approach while making labour demand projection for a year. Orissa Government seems to have trampled that precise and clearly laid approach. A look at the labour projection reveals the mockery of the exercise. For all districts month-wise increase, in percent term, of household and man-days labour demand is absolutely the same. For example, all 30 districts of the State have projected that labour demand by May 2011 will be 128.57 percent more than April. This is same not just for month of May alone; it is same throughout all 12 months of the year. The Government's projection shows that labour demand in June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February and March will increase by an uniform rate of 56.25, 36, 26.47, 18.6, 5.88, 11.11, 8.33, 18.46, 10.39 and 17.65 percent than their respective preceding months across all the districts. A projection when based on assessments made at Gramsabha level and then compiled and cumulated at higher levels, will never return a similar trend throughout the State as labour demand in the districts deeply vary in need and character. Thus it clearly shows that the labour budget projection made by the State Government is arbitrary and mere hogwash.
The State Government's labour budget is ridiculous on a different count also. It hardly takes any measure of the real employment requirement of the wage seekers. April and May months are peak seasons for the scheme. This is the time when the rural households have least employment opportunities from other sources. Besides it is the ideal time for renovation of ponds, water harvesting structures, land levelling, and pit digging for plantations kind of activities. But the Government's labour budget makes a projection as if the hungry and poor rural folks do not have that kind of consideration at all and as if they plan their requirement Government's financial year. The Government's projection will make us believe that poor rural friends considerately decides that as the financial year ends with March they should be moderate in seeking employment in the months of April or May, the beginning months of the new financial year. While the State Government had projected 265 lakh man-days demand for March 2011, which is the last month of the previous financial year, its projection for May 2011 was a mere 73 lakh man-days. In other words, people's demand for wage employment in April 2011 was nearly one-fourth of March 2011 projection. Ironically, this trend is not limited to this year alone. Last year too, the State Government had projected the least number of man-days requirements in the month of April. This clearly proves that the projections being whimsically prepared.
Apart from helping in planning projects, labour budget projection also forms the basis of fund release. The MGNREGS guidelines clearly lay down that labour budget projection for the next year should be necessarily submitted by the end of December.
The 'efficient' Government in Orissa submitted that projection only on 16.04.2011, a full three and half months after the schedule due date. And it had its affect. While 22 States got their first instalment of Central share on the very first day of the current financial year, Orissa got that only on 10th June - nearly two and half months into the financial year
Partial release of Central share and late release of State share has become the norm. When the Central Government decided to withhold the first instalment for six districts, the State Government cried foul as if the whole world has gone upside down. But if the situation was so bad, why only a part of the Central share was was disbursed to the districts. While the Central Government had released Rs 529.9 Crore on 21.6.11 for 24 districts, the State Government disbursed only Rs 256 Crore to the districts. Similarly, out of the Rs 170 Crore Central share grant to the remaining six districts, the State disbursed Rs 95 Crore.
While the State Government's tendency to sit over the funds for as long as possible may still be passed off as an outcome of low employment demand against the projection, release of State share for year 2010-11 in the year 2011-12 cannot be justified in any manner.
The State Government - which had reminded the Central Government about the NREGS being different from other schemes, and that being so, fund release cannot be denied in any circumstances - conveniently ignored the fact that the same stipulation also applies to it. The State Government failed to release the required matching grant of Rs 38 Crore for year 2010- 11. It could release only Rs 15 Crore in year 2010-11. The remaining matching grant of Rs 23.5 Crore for financial year 2010-11 was released only on 18th May 2011. 'Insufficient budget provision' was cited as the reason. Huh... what a mediocrity?
The Government does not even have the foresight to earmark required budget for a scheme which supposedly goes through strategic rigours of thorough planning and projections, and a scheme which compels the Government to provide wage employment to its citizens.
The hollowness within the mechanism needs to be plugged early. Else, a great scheme with great potential will continue to be wasted.