Union Budget, Andhra’s depleting funds and plight of MGNREGA workers

With the introduction of the new budget, which slashed the allocated amount to MGNREGS workers by 25%, the scheme and its subjects are likely to suffer a huge hit.

Hyderabad: Vegi Rupa, a resident of Munagapaka village in Visakhapatnam district is one among the many who is yet to receive her wages. Rupa has two daughters and a differently-abled husband who is a victim of alcoholism. 

She is due to receive Rs 3600 for the canal work (kaluva pani) that she did in her village. While a part of her wages were received, the balance amount is yet to reach her bank account. It is important to observe that this is the status of a significant chunk of MGNREGS workers.

Rupa was filling in for her daughter, also an MGNREGS worker, who was pregnant at the time. Speaking to Siasat.com, Rupa’s daughter Hyma expresses concern that if the wages don’t arrive, the situation of her household is likely to worsen. 

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Maa amma ki memu iddarame aadapillalu. (My mother has only two daughters.) My daughter is currently three years old and my son is an infant of five months. So far, my family has sustained primarily on the labour work my mother does. If her salary doesn’t come through, our situation is likely to worsen,” says Hyma. 

With the introduction of the new budget, which slashed the allocated amount to MGNREGS workers by 25%, the scheme and its subjects are likely to suffer a huge blow. This is especially true of Andhra Pradesh which already overspent its MGNREGS allocation for 2021-22 by November 2021, thus rendering the unpaid workers, hapless. 

Flagging a similar concern, another resident of Munagapaka village, Vanu Kiran, describes how his maternal grandmother’s wages (for four weeks) have not arrived as of yet. The amount due to Gangayyamma amounts to Rs 4800. 

“We are surviving on our grandfather’s pension currently. But it would help if my grandmother’s wages come through. We end up going to the hospital at least once or twice a month because someone or the other in the family suffers from infections in their blood or urine or at the least is infected with typhoid. Things are difficult, our debts alone amount to Rs 1 lakh,” says Kiran. 

The MGNREGA, Union Budget 2022-23, and other striking concerns:

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” or MGNREGA, is an Indian labour law that was passed in 2005 under the Manmohan Singh led government with an aim to guarantee the ‘right to work’ to the socially impoverished strata of the society residing in rural areas. For up to three months (roughly a hundred days), a member of a household can avail the services of the MGNREGS scheme (introduced as a result of the Act) by focusing on manual unskilled labour.

A week ago, the Union budget was introduced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The budget noted that the allotted amount for MGNREGA was slashed by 25% from the previous year. From Rs 98,000 crore in 2021-22, the revised estimate is down at Rs 73,000 for the financial year 2022-23.

It is worth noting that workers from lower socio-economic groups in rural areas (across the country) depend heavily on MGNREGA for their employment, and especially did so during the pandemic. Aside from the budget deepening their suffering, the other facet which goes unaddressed is that often, workers don’t end up getting their wages on time even when they have clocked in the work.

Problems faced by workers currently

When asked about the exact dates for which her mother worked, Vegi Rupa struggled to recollect. She asked this reporter to wait for a while and consulted other members of her family who were as unclear about the dates as she was.

“It isn’t really a problem of memory. Their unawareness stems from the fact that until we protested, the workers were not given their pay-slips which would demarcate the months in which they were employed,” remarks Bujji Rajana, the Convenor of Ambedkarism Punadi.

Ambedkarism Punadi is a rural organization based in Visakhapatnam, working towards the timely release of the wages of NREGA workers and other rights of the workers. “If I had to estimate, around 60% of the workers in the state are yet to receive their wages,” he adds.

It is important to note that of the Rs 6271 crores allocated for MGNREGA in AP in the financial year 2021-22, the Centre released Rs 4,571 crores. Adding to that, by November 2021, Andhra Pradesh had spent Rs 7,379 crores which resulted in the funds getting completely exhausted.

Chakradhar Buddha, a researcher for Lib Tech India noted that the AP government cannot be held accountable for the issue. “There is a demand for work and as far as MGNREGA is concerned the state government is catering to it,” he stated.

While the exact percentage of the number of people yet to receive their wages is unclear, the MGNREGA website notes that unpaid dues for workers in AP amount to 3339.68 lakhs as of February 8, 2022.

How will the budget affect MGNREGA workers?

Explaining the link between the budget and the wage workers, noted economist Dr Amir Ullah Khan notes, “The government’s budget for 2022-23 is primarily aimed at improving infrastructure which seems like a decent idea. However, infrastructural facilities like schools, hospitals are not likely to come up tomorrow which means that until the plan is set in motion, the wage workers have no gainful employment. The MGNREGA was introduced to mitigate rural suffer and the distress of the labourers.”

Dr Khan further observes that with the slash in funds and a major chunk of the salaries not yet paid, the current budget allocation (for FY 2022-23) will be spent on paying the leftover wages from the previous year. “It is arguable that a lot of workers will now be turned away when they ask for work because there aren’t enough funds to accommodate a lot of people.”

In the past, the lack of employment has resulted in people migrating in mass numbers to the cities just to find gainful employment. The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed people leaving metropolises and going back to villages.

The constant flux in which the MGNREGA labourers find themselves is unsettling but as of the moment there isn’t a precise way to pin point what, if at all, the budget would mean for them.

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