Concern over protecting the ‘holy cow’ status to the job guarantee programme, MGNREGA, appears to be overshadowing genuine worries in the government over increasing shortage of unskilled farm labour.
Shooting down a suggestion from Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar that the programme may be suspended during the peak farming season, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has said that there should not be any dilution in the programme.
In an end-July letter to Pawar, the Rural Development Minister said that “in so far as the legal position is concerned, there is no scope for ambiguity that MGNREGA provides guaranteed 100 days of unskilled employment to such households who volunteer to do manual labour in any given financial year as a measure to ensure livelihood security.”
Queries over growing reverse migration by farm labour from key supplier states such as Bihar, now in throes of economic revival, impacting on harvesting and sowing operations in the peak agricultural periods in big producer states have been raised time and again in Parliament.
Although MGNREGA may not be the sole reason, studies have cited anecdotal and circumstantial evidence to prove its significant impact on the gradual withdrawal of unskilled farm labour from agricultural activities in peak season.
Reports recently suggested that the issue may be resolved by suspending MGNREGA unofficially in peak farm activity periods after Farm Secretary PK Basu wrote to his rural development counterpart asking that this be done.
But Ramesh seems to be sticking with the nitty-gritty of MGNREGA’s legal provisions. Of the 47 days of work provided (as against the 100 days guaranteed in the demand-based programme) in 2010-11, only 12 days of work were in either case given to eligibles in peak farm period of July-November, he held, contending that of the total, 35 days of employment were provided mostly in the lean agricultural season as supplementary employment.
One of six principal inputs – wage payments (which included the imputed household labour cost) account for a massive 32 to 35% of total agricultural cost. The demand for suspending the rural employment programme during peak agricultural season has been put forward by some farmer unions.
Studies conducted by NSSO reveal that the rural employment scheme has contributed to reduction in out migration and enhancing bargaining capacity or workers.
Additionally, increased economic activity in states like Bihar has contributed to drying up of a perennial flow of seasonal migrant farm hands. With work options increasing, the cost of agriculture labour has gone up.
Asserting that complaints from farmers and unions are more related to increasing farm abour wages than availability, Ramesh said “withdrawal of labour from agriculture has been a long-continuing process”.
As if to rub salt into Pawar’s wounds – he had to let go of the key food ministry after food inflation soared earlier this year – Ramesh suggested that instead of diluting MGNREGA, the farm ministry’s own hold on successful programmes such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana should be diluted through convergence with MGNREGA. Economic Times