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MGNREGA transfers power to the poorest in Covid-19 times

By Sonia Gandhi

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005 is a shining example of a radical and rational systemic change. It is radical because it transferred power to the poorest of the poor and enabled them to escape hunger and deprivation. It is rational because it puts money directly in the hands of those who need it most. It has proved its worth in the years it has been in existence, even enduring six years of a hostile government.

A government that sought to denigrate it, undermine it has come to reluctantly rely on it. Along with the Public Distribution System put in place by an earlier Congress government, it is the mainstay for our poorest and most vulnerable citizens in preventing starvation and destitution wherever implemented in letter and spirit, especially in today’s COVID-19 crisis.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “When ridicule fails to kill a movement it begins to command respect”. In independent India there is no better example of this coming true than MGNREGA. On assuming office, Prime Minister Modi realized that shutting down the scheme was not practical. Instead he sought to deride it, attacking the Congress party in a caustic speech in which he called it “a living monument of your failure”.

In the years since the Modi government tried its best to throttle MGNREGA, hollowing it out and undermining it. But with the unrelenting pressure of activists, the courts and a vocal opposition in Parliament, the government was forced to step back. In a characteristic reversal of course, it sought instead to give it a new appearance, by integrating it with the Prime Minister’s pet programs like Swacchh Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.

These were passed off as reforms but in reality they were no more than a barely disguised dressing up of Congress party initiatives. It is another matter that payments to workers were delayed interminably and work was denied frequently.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the distress it has unleashed, has brought the Modi government around full circle. Faced with unprecedented hardship and an economy already in slowdown, the government was obliged to fall back on UPA’s flagship rural relief program. Deeds are more important than words, and nothing speaks more eloquently than the Finance Minister’s recent and belated increase in the overall allocation of the program to more than rupees one lakh crore. In May 2020 alone 2.19 crore households demanded work through the Act, the highest for the month in eight years.

Now, as dejected workers return from cities and towns to their villages in droves, deprived of employment, facing an insecure future, a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale is unfolding before us. And the value of MGNREGA has never been clearer and more evident. Relief efforts must be centered around rebuilding their faith. One immediate step must be to issue them job cards in the program.

The government must put money directly in the hands of the people in this time of crisis by clearing arrears, ensuring unemployment allowance, and being flexible about modes of payment to the workers to cut delays. The Modi government has not paid heed to the demands to increase the number of workdays to 200 and to allow them to be registered at the worksites in every gram panchayat. MGNREGA must ensure open ended funding as it was meant to be.

(Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Congress party. The views expressed are personal.)

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