Nov 11, 2019-Monday
Last week, Hindustan Times reported that the government is actively considering allowing use of machines in MGNREGS works in some states. The trigger for such consideration has come from the requests from the states which have submitted that rocky terrain makes it difficult to do manual work under the scheme. MGNREGS, by its very definition, is supposed to be manual unskilled work, most of which can be largely substituted by machines. So, will this tweaking in rules dilute the fundamental character of the programme?
The government believes that, as long as the criterion of spending at least 60% of the expenditure on labour payments is adhered to, there is no problem. The Congress has described attempts to allow machines as something which goes against the substance of the programme. The truth, as is often the case, might lie in the middle.
The MGNREGS was not conceived as a programme to dig holes and fill them up. It was, and continues to be, an insurance of last resort against acute poverty. The state guarantees people at least 100 days of basic subsistence wages, failing which they could not just fall into poverty but even fail to secure two square meals. That such a programme is needed in our country is a testimony to the systemic failure of the Indian growth story to provide respectable jobs to people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he termed the MGNREGS as a monument of Congress’s failure to provide jobs to people, was right on this count.
However, the MGNREGS is different from most other welfare schemes. If people did not need to do the kind of manual work to earn subsistence wages, the programme would have seen a natural contraction. That this has not happened, and demand has been increasing, shows that there is a strong reason to strengthen rather than weaken the programme. It is in this context that the decision to allow the use of machines, where manual labour could be extremely difficult, or even unproductive, needs to be welcomed.
As far as the question of workers being replaced by machines is concerned, the solution does not lie in rejecting machines, but developing better social audit and vigilance to ensure that the state is fulfilling its commitment of providing jobs to those who demand it. The Opposition would do a better service to the programme in highlighting implementation problems rather than opposing improvements which could facilitate the programme.