New Delhi: Noticing a steep rise in demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme (MNREGA) in what was a drought year, the rural development ministry used an off-record WhatsApp chat group to tell states to desist from generating more work for the poor under the flagship welfare scheme programme. In a message sent in August, the ministry told state government officials the ‘mad race’ for generating work under MNREGA could not continue. It warned that more funds would not be made available soon and states had to ‘plan’ more ‘judiciously’ with the money they had already received.
The instructions ran contrary to the provisions of the MNREG Act, which makes it mandatory for the government to provide as much money as is required for the work demanded by the rural poor and not curtail the programme to fit its budgetary decisions. But, on the WhatsApp group, the NDA government told the states that the idea that MNREGA was demand driven ‘did not cut much ice anymore’.
Faced with this informally imposed moratorium on funds, many states repeatedly pleaded the rural development ministry on the WhatsApp group for the immediate release of monies to pay hundreds of crores of already piled up arrears to the poor for the work that had been completed. But faced with the Centre’s off-record instructions, the work states provided to the rural poor in August and September came crashing down. On July 30th, million extra person-days of work was given as compared to what Centre had initially approved. In September, the work provided was 54.48 million person-days less than what was initially approved for the month. This, when the budgeted work for September had anyway been kept substantially lower than that for July, adjusting for the usual lower demand in monsoon period.
Business Standard reviewed the WhatsApp chat group named ENCORE or ‘Enabling Communication on Rural Employment’ by the rural development ministry. It has all senior ministry officials and state level MNREGA officials as members, besides others. The ministry claimed, “It is simply a convenience for follow-up and reminders as also for showcasing good work by States through uploading of pictures.”
But instructions from the Union rural development ministry to the state officials on the WhatsApp group shows that the chat was also used as an off-record avenue for the union government to pass instructions that it could not have done through formal channels, keeping the law in mind.
On August 14, the rural development ministry’s joint secretary in-charge of MNREGA told the states, “We ought to desist from campaigns for enlisting demand and indulging in the mad race of more and more person-day generation (generating of wages). While the Act (MNREG Act) does not distinguish between APL and BPL (those above and below poverty line) and vulnerable/non-vulnerable, we have to ‘intelligently’ communicate to the district/block/GP authorities to learn to target.”
On August 28th, the rural development ministry official told the states “To resort to the logic that it is a demand-driven programme and whatever is asked for will be given, does not cut much ice now. This has been voiced in the Honourable Supreme Court too. There has to be a pragmatic handling of funds”
The officer added, “Our demands cannot be unlimited for the simple reason that the resources are limited – both of the Centre and the states. The Ministry had emphatically and clearly communicated during the previous fund release that we have to strategically plan out the spending till September, 2016.”
In response to queries from Business Standard, the rural development ministry said, “The Ministry is committed to implement the MGNREG Act in letter and spirit.”
It added, “While work on demand is being made available as reflected in the very high person-days generation especially during periods of drought and distress, a demand based programme also requires proper record keeping, financial management and full transparency and accountability.”
This piece was originally published on Business Standard.