MGNREGA funds for farm labour?

The suggestion was made at a meeting of a sub-group of seven Chief Ministers, convened by the NITI Aayog to discuss ways to coordinate policy approaches of MGNREGA and agriculture.

A group of Chief Ministers belonging to the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have made a pitch for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme (MGNREGA) funds to be used to pay for farm labour. While activists and economists who originally drafted the scheme say such an alteration of the scheme would defeat its purpose, farmers’ groups say the proposal may be difficult to implement.

The suggestion was made at a meeting of a sub-group of seven Chief Ministers, convened by the NITI Aayog to discuss ways to coordinate policy approaches of MGNREGA and agriculture.

It will be discussed along with other proposals in five regional workshops to be held over the next month before the sub-group meets again on August 31.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath suggested use of MGNREGA funds in supplementing labour costs in agriculture, according to an official statement. NITI Aayog tweeted statements from several Chief Ministers. Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani said, “We must look into how MGNREGA can reduce farm costs, especially farm labour.”

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar said, “The scope of MGNREGA must be expanded with due analysis. From sowing to the harvest season, there is a need for adequate farm labour.”

Mr. Adityanath said, “If MGNREGA can cover costs of agricultural inputs, especially availability of labour during farming season, it will be beneficial for all involved.” The group is chaired by Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu submitted written suggestions.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling is also a member of the group.

Since its inception in 2006, the Central rural employment guarantee scheme has aimed to provide livelihood security in rural areas by guaranteeing at least 100 days of minimum wage employment, mostly in the construction of durable assets such as roads, canals and ponds.

Economist and social activist Jean Dreze, who originally conceptualised the scheme, was sceptical about the possibility of using MGNREGA to employ agricultural labour on private farms. “This is likely to benefit employers more than workers. The purpose of MGNREGA is to generate additional employment, not to subsidise existing employment for the benefit of employers,” he told The Hindu.

“This is completely ridiculous. Just because MGNREGA has money, you can’t use it to solve the agrarian crisis in this way,” said Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan activist Nikhil Dey. “Tomorrow, companies will also say that we are in trouble and need free labour.” He warned that such a proposal would amount to a cash transfer to farmers, which would distort the purpose of the labour-oriented scheme. It would be impossible to measure or monitor the work done and could also reintroduce feudalism in rural areas, he added.

Many farmers’ unions have long complained that MGNREGA has led to a shortage of agricultural labour, and demanded that the scheme should not be available during the months of April to June, between sowing to harvest.

Agriculture and food policy expert Devinder Sharma, who has worked with a number of farmers’ groups, says that land owners are priced out of the rural labour market by the minimum wages paid to workers by MGNREGA. He supports the idea of an April-June closure of MGNREGA, but feels that the proposal to pay farm workers through the scheme is impractical. “It will be very difficult to implement, especially with 58% of farmers themselves getting MGNREGA work. How do you check the work they do on their own farms?” he asked.

“MGNREGA was meant to provide a cushion for workers, and increase their bargaining power with farmers. Such a proposal will destroy that,” pointed out Avik Saha, convener of the Jai Kisan Andolan. “This is just a way for the government to claim the MGNREGA budget as part of its effort to increase farmers’ income in an election year.”

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