Around 27.6 million households have sought work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) this month to date. This is nearly 26 per cent less than last year, given several states are still busy reining in the Covid-19 contagion.

Several civil society workers said the push seen last year in expanding the scheme has largely been missing this year.

In Rajasthan, for example, there was a complete halt in work from May 10 due to the lockdown. In Uttar Pradesh (UP), activists said work demand went down since gram sabhas had not been constituted due to panchayat polls.

Said UP coordinator of National Alliance for People’s Movements Suresh Rathod, “The scheme suffered in May due to delay in the constitution of gram sabhas.”

Experts said the demand for work has also been lower in May, compared with last year, as there wasn’t any national lockdown in the second wave of Covid and several industries, which were completely closed during the first wave, were allowed to function in the second.

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“Different studies have suggested that rural workers, as well as migrants, are facing severe cash crunch. Therefore, there is a dire need for augmenting the rural employment programme. There is absolutely no push from the central government to expedite works under The state administration and others have thus far shown no signs of urgency to ensure optimum implementation of MGNREGA,” said Debmalya Nandy, an activist with NREGA Sangharsh Morcha.

He said gram panchayats do not have adequate schemes sanctioned. Consequently, payments, too, have been held up for more than a month. “In the absence of money and a strong push from the government, NREGA has almost come to a standstill this year, despite economic stress among rural communities. The Opposition, too, has not raised the issue of a rural livelihood crisis so far,” he said.

In FY21, around 37.3 million households had sought work under the scheme in May. This was the highest-ever since the scheme was launched.

The number of people demanding work further swelled in June to 44.7 million households, as more migrants took the long walk home to escape the lockdown in the cities.

The Centre, too, responded by increasing the scheme’s expenditure by a record Rs 40,000 crore to over Rs 1.1 trillion, of which a whopping Rs 78,000 crore went towards payment of wages.

In FY21, as many as 110 million individuals got work under the scheme – the highest since its inception in 2006.

Around 3.9 billion persondays of work were generated under the scheme – the highest since its launch.

Since July, there has been a gradual decline in the number of people seeking work under the scheme as the lockdown lifted and migrants returned to the cities. But demand remained higher than the previous year for the most part of FY21.

In April, too, work demand under MGNREGA was higher than the corresponding period last year. But several experts said the two time frames aren’t comparable as in April 2020, given several worksites hadn’t started due to the lockdown.

“Last year, the additional allocation of Rs 40,000 crore (over and above the budgeted estimate of Rs 61,500 crore) ensured more than 11 million new families registered for NREGA and 20 million more families worked under the scheme, compared with 2019-20. A special stimulus for employment generation is the need of the hour,” said Nandy.

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