Instructions from the Union rural development ministry to the state officials on the WhatsApp group show that the chat was also used as an off-record avenue for the Union government to pass instructions, which it could not have done through formal channels, keeping the law in mind.
Noticing a steep rise in demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in the drought year, the rural development ministry used an off-record WhatsApp chat group to tell states not to generate more work under the programme.
The ministry told state officials that the ‘mad race’ for generating work under MGNREGA could not continue.
It warned that more funds would not be made available soon and that states should ‘plan’ more ‘judiciously’ with the money they had already received.
The instructions ran contrary to the provisions of MGNREGA, which make it mandatory for the government to provide as much funds as are required for the work demanded by the rural poor and not curtail work to fit its budgetary decisions.
But, on the WhatsApp group, the government told states the idea that MGNREGA was demand-driven “did not cut much ice anymore”.
Faced with this informally imposed moratorium on funds, many states repeatedly pleaded with the rural development ministry on the WhatsApp group for immediate release of monies to pay hundreds of crores of arrears to the poor for the work that had been completed.
But, faced with the Centre’s off-record instructions, the work states provided to the rural poor in August and September came crashing down.
In July, 30 million extra persondays of work was given, compared with what the Centre had initially approved. In September, the work provided was 54.48 million persondays less than what was initially approved for the month. This, when the budgeted work for September had been kept substantially lower than that for July, adjusting for the usual lower demand in the monsoon period.
Business Standard reviewed the WhatsApp chat group named ENCORE or ‘Enabling Commu-nication on Rural Employment’ by the rural development ministry. It has all senior ministry officials and state-level MGNREGA officials as members, besides others.
The ministry claimed: ‘It is simply a convenience for follow-up and reminders as also for showcasing good work by states through uploading of pictures.’
But, instructions from the Union rural development ministry to the state officials on the WhatsApp group show that the chat was also used as an off-record avenue for the Union government to pass instructions, which it could not have done through formal channels, keeping the law in mind.
On August 14, the rural development ministry’s joint secretary in-charge of MGNREGA told the states: ‘We ought to desist from campaigns for enlisting demand and indulging in the mad race of more and more personday generation (generating of wages). While the Act does not distinguish between APL and BPL (those above and below poverty line) and vulnerable/non-vulnerable, we have to “intelligently” communicate to the district/block/GP authorities to learn to target.’
On August 28, the rural development ministry official told the states: ‘To resort to the logic that it is a demand-driven programme and whatever is asked for will be given, does not cut much ice now. This has been voiced in the Supreme Court, too. There has to be a pragmatic handling of funds.’
The officer added: ‘Our demands cannot be unlimited for the simple reason that the resources are limited -- both of the Centre and that of the states. The ministry had emphatically and clearly communicated during the previous fund release that we have to strategically plan out the spending till September 2016.’
In response to queries from Business Standard, the rural development ministry said: ‘The ministry is committed to implementing MGNREGA in letter and spirit.’
About the WhatsApp group, it said, ‘ENCORE was never intended as a substitute to official communication. All substantive issues are addressed through formal letters of the ministry and not through WhatsApp messages. The WhatsApp messages are kept as a back-up for future references, if need be. However, no formal arrangement has been made in this regard. It is not a formal government communication.’
But, the chats show that while the central government was giving off-the-record instructions to make do with earlier provided funds till September, at the same time, states were repeatedly pleading for funds.
Some said they had already run up large arrears that were to be paid to villagers for completed work. Some others warned that they had little money left to give work in the coming months.
On August 19, Karnataka officials wrote in the chat: ‘Wages of 288 crore pending needs urgent clearance. Labour unrest in every district. We are not able to answer. We had requested 200 crore state funds to be put in account for clearing wages. Unfortunately, that could not materialise. (Karnataka chief minister) said the PM, on May 7 this year during drought mitigation meeting, had assured full support. Hence, works were ensured to needy people. The ministry of rural development had also allowed 150 days to drought-affected blocks. Now, all these poor workers must be paid at the earliest. Request for kind help urgently.’
On August 22, Tamil Nadu wrote: ‘We are in urgent needs of funds, as our wage liability is around 750 crore so far….’
Business Standard found at least five more states had made similar pleas to the Union government and some of them did so repeatedly. Jammu and Kashmir pointed out the difficult situation and said urgent provision of funds would help keep people employed under the circumstances.
In response to Business Standard’s queries, the rural development ministry said: ‘The ministry of rural development has not made any changes in its approach in the month of August, as is borne out by all formal communications to the states.’
It added, ‘While work on demand is being made available as reflected in the very high persondays generation, especially during periods of drought and distress, a demand-based programme also requires proper record keeping, financial management and full transparency and accountability.’
Image: Villagers working in a field under the NREGA programme. Photograph: Reuters.