The Narendra Modi government was not supportive of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and has criticised it many times, but has found merit in it in recent months. In January 2019, the government had to allocate an additional Rs 6,084 crore to the programme to meet its financial demands, thus taking up the total amount to be spent in the financial year 2018-19 to Rs 61,084 crore. In February 2018, the Union budget had earmarked Rs 55,000 crore to the demand-driven rural employment scheme. It now proposes to increase the current year’s allocation for the scheme by Rs 20,000 crore from the original Rs 60,000 crore. This is obviously because of the economic slowdown and the rising demand for employment in rural areas. There is widespread distress and livelihood pressures. The government has also decided to execute some of its schemes like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna through the NREGS. The scheme is meant to give employment to unskilled labourers in rural areas. The wage, a subsistence amount lower than the prescribed minimum, is to be now linked to the inflation index. The government has also promised to give a daily allowance of Rs 250 for skills training for unskilled labourers. This shows there is willingness to relax some rules. It is the states that are implementing the programme. Some states want the rules to be further relaxed to make the scheme more useful in certain conditions. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have requested the Centre to allow the use of machines for work in rocky terrains.
In December 2017, a study conducted by Rajendran Narayanan from the Azim Premji University, Bangalore, in collaboration with two independent researchers, had corroborated the Morcha’s stand on requirement for more budgetary allocations for MGNREGA. The use of machines, which involves skilled work, is not strictly within the scope of NREGS. There is opposition to this idea because it is feared that it may see the entry of contractors into the scheme with all its attendant problems and may eventually reduce the role of labour in it. There is actually a list of the different kinds of work that can be undertaken under the scheme, and all of them are manual. The rules stipulate that at least 60 per cent of the expenditure should be on labour payments. It may not be wise to be very rigid about the rules in special situations. On some terrains, work may not be possible at all if only manual work is to be undertaken. Machines may be allowed in such cases and it will give employment to both skilled and unskilled labour.
It should, however, be ensured that the relaxation of rules is not misused. Adequate safeguards can be put in place for this at the level of implementation. The implementation of the scheme has to be improved in any case to make it more useful to the targeted sections and to reduce corruption and malpractices. The basic objectives and design of the scheme can be retained even when exceptions are made and the scope of the scheme expanded.