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Why UPA govt's job scheme is a total failure

July 11, 2014 16:14 IST

Why UPA govt's job scheme is a total failure

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Sankrant Sanu

MNREGA is a poverty-continuation scheme and is destructive to Indian aspirations and progress, says Sankrant Sanu.

Modi sarkar’s first Budget speaks of a shift towards harnessing India’s entrepreneurial energies but it doesn’t put the money where the mouth is. 

India has enormous talent which can be developed into skilled workforce that can plug into the global economy. It is not the time for half-baked measures.

Given budget constraints, the allocation of Rs 34,000 crore (Rs 340 billion) to continue UPA’s harebrained Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme in comparison to Rs 500 crore for the Digital India initiative shows that Modi sarkar is still trapped by Congress’ past policies.

The MNREGA scheme was promoted by Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council and was promulgated soon after the UPA came to power in 2004. 

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Image: Road construction workers eat food during a break from work in Siliguri.
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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It is characteristic of an approach that cultivates the poor as a constituency to be maintained rather than poverty as a condition to be eliminated.  Among its provisions, found in the official 2013 booklet are: 

All adult members of a rural household willing to do unskilled manual work have the right to demand employment

Employment will be provided by the Gram Panchayat (local self governing body) within 15 days of work application, failing which unemployment allowance will be paid.

No contractors/and no labour-displacing machinery shall be used in execution of works. 

This patronising approach aims at giving the poor handouts. These handouts do not help the poor rise out of poverty via skill development; rather MNREGA makes a “guarantee” to keep them at that level.

A program needs to be measured by what it rewards, what it cultivates, and the aspirations it engenders.

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Image: A farmer ploughs his field to sow millet seeds.
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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What does MNREGA reward and create? 

It rewards unskilled manual work over skill enhancement.

It rewards not working at all.  If the Gram Panchayats cannot create work, people will be paid nonetheless.  As a result it lowers aspirations, as there is no real advantage to working over not doing anything.

It encourages non-use of technology and keeps people technology unskilled and illiterate in its provision that no “labour-displacing machinery” be used. 

In other words, MNREGA takes an Orientalist approach to Indian villagers, assuming them to be stuck in a perpetual state of backwardness, in a non-technology world of manual labour and creates incentives for them to stay there. 

It kills aspiration, entrepreneurship and work culture. It is a retrograde scheme that is deadweight against Indians moving into the global economy. 

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Image: An employee works inside an aluminium utensil manufacturing unit.
Photographs: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

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In my essay on revitalising Indian languages, I had spoken about finding myself in the Khandodra village in Haryana where 33 per cent of the children scored above the 90 percentile in the IQ test I administered.  

These children were capable of being physicists, doctors, computer professionals and astronauts. Lowering the barriers to their entry into the global economy would help them more than assured MNREGA handouts for unskilled labour.

Imagine if the government invested in creating the linguistic infrastructure for teaching science and computers in Indian languages, providing broadband connectivity to the villages and subsidising a gigantic work force of trainers to provide high-skill training in the villages.

Why not educate them to be computer animators and film makers rather than basket weavers and ditch diggers?

Why not train them on using heavy equipment that would help them dig in one-tenth the time and find a better-paying job rather than mandate manual work? Why not have them learn to be global contractors on Elance rather than waiting for the next 100 days of dole for no work from the government? 

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Photographs: Reuters

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I had ended up in Khandodra village, because my driver Ram Dev was from there. Few days after my trip, Dinesh, a young man of about 20 from Khandodra, came to meet me in Gurgaon.

He had heard I worked with computers. He wanted my advice on taking a computer-training course. He wanted to do a course in hardware repair.

He was scrounging around for the Rs 40,000 that he needed to do this computer hardware course. He wanted to be plugged into the digital economy. I could feel his aspiration. 

The budgetary approach frustrates me because its priorities remain misplaced. It doesn’t help Dinesh get the training he wants in computer hardware but would be happy to pay him if he sat at home doing nothing or digging ditches. None of this will lift Dinesh out of poverty. 

MNREGA is a poverty-continuation scheme. Its continuation is destructive to Indian aspirations and progress, never mind the noble thoughts of Modi sarkar in better utilising that manual labour in MNREGA and plugging the leaks in the notoriously corruption-ridden scheme.

If China and the US were to design a plan for India to stay uncompetitive, they couldn’t have done better than MNREGA. I sometimes wonder if they funded NAC members for this. 

When we spend over 50 times the amount in our budget on paying people to contribute unskilled labour, mandating that no machines should be used, than to bridging the digital divide there is something wrong with our priorities.

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The rapidly advancing countries are simply not operating with these misplaced priorities.

We are losing time offering incentives to people to dig dirt and lug bricks on their head while China is plowing all that money into training its workforce for the 21st century economy, eating our lunch in manufacturing, and increasingly, in the knowledge economy. 

What if we took the same MNREGA money and changed it this way. If you were unskilled, rather than paying you for digging ditches or sitting at home, the government would pay you to acquire skills.

It would pay in vouchers that can be cashed for private certified training programs.  Rather than saying no “labour-displacing machines” can be used for MNREGA benefits, it would train you to operate heavy equipment and provide the resources to the village to rent or acquire it.

Future MNREGA benefits would only accrue on satisfactory completion of one or more of the skill-building programs. 

Of course, no one should starve, so it can also make available a subsistence level of food for whoever needs it, not just the rural unskilled. This helps the case of dire poverty while also having an approach that looks ahead to create a future India that is not mired in poverty, unlike the future that MNREGA creates. 

Can you imagine the impact if MNREGA’s Rs 34,000 crore (Rs 340 billion) went directly into skill development and digital connectivity for rural India rather than the meagre 500 crore (Rs 5 billion) allocation for the latter? It is the impact India needs and it cannot afford for the Modi sarkar to fail in this. 

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