With the state close to exhausting its allocated quota of person-days for the year and a very small per cent of households having completed 100 days of work under MGNREGA, much of the demand is expected to go unmet as agriculture work dries up due to drought
By Bharat Patel
Chitradurga, Karnataka: Thimmanna Sannaiah (42) and his wife Roopa Thimmanna (33) from Chitradurga district of Karnataka have exhausted the guaranteed 100 days of wage employment to households under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme. Apart from being unemployed since early last month, the delay in receiving payments for the work done in September and October and the prevailing drought situation are giving them a hard time.
‘It has been almost a month since we received wages. We get free rice and ragi [finger millet], but how can we cook without oil, tomato, onion and chilli,’ asks Sannaiah, who hails from Chikkerahalli village in Molakalmuru Assembly constituency. Sannaiah used to be paid Rs 316 for a day’s work under MGNREGA. Together, the delayed wages of the couple amount to over Rs 10,000, and it is not surprising because they received the wages for seven days of work done in August only on November 16.
Like Sannaiah who wonders how he will manage the expenses of the household comprising two children and his mother who often gets sick, Ashok Srinivas from the same village is worried about household expenses and managing the medical needs of his children aged three and one.
‘I am a graduate, but I have no other job option before me except MGNREGA. Payments have been delayed earlier also, but it has never been this bad. If we had money in our accounts or pockets, would we plead to the government like this,’ he asks, while reminding that the officials always assure the workers of payments, but nothing really happens.
As of December 10, no payments from November have been made in the state while more than half of the payments from October are still pending. ‘In the second week of November, along with other states, Rs 750 crore was approved for Karnataka. This is still being disbursed to beneficiaries,’ Karnataka MGNREGA Commissioner Pavan Kumar Malapati tells 101Reporters.
The MGNREGA Act, 2005, mandates that every worker should be paid within 15 days of completion of a work week, failing which a delay compensation should be paid at the rate of 0.05% per day of delay. ‘But this is not followed. They never pay the extra money,’ claims Thippesh Shivananda (40), a farmer and MGNREGA worker from Chikkerahalli.
Roopa says she and Sannaiah have been making the rounds of the local panchayat office, but the authorities only assured that the payment would be credited in a week. ‘Some people tell us the government does not have money with it. We do not know anything about it. But we need money to live, else we have to leave this village and migrate to cities,’ she asserted.
Drought of person-days
As of December 10, the state has already generated nearly 11 crore person-days out of its allocated 13 crore person-days, with three-and-a-half months still left in the financial year. Chitradurga has particularly overshot its projection and has less than one lakh person-days left, with panchayats there unable to provide work for those who demand it.
Over 1.17 lakh households have demanded work in the district and 1.09 lakh households have availed of work, but only a minuscule 628 families have completed 100 days of work. Across the state, out of 29 lakh families (comprising 54 lakh people) who applied for work this year, only 26,665 have got the 100 days guaranteed under the scheme; less than 10%.
A casual look at the data would suggest that most of those who applied for work have received it and demand itself is low, but Apurva Gupta from the NREGA Sangarsh Manch cautions that ‘employment demand is always an underestimate’. Much of it is not registered, she says. ‘People often demand work orally, but panchayat officials only file the application and release muster rolls when they can guarantee work, to avoid paying unemployment allowance.’ Apart from this demand is suppressed due to lack of awareness, the convoluted process and delay in payments, she adds.
But this year, the situation has been exacerbated by the rainfall deficit. Since September, Karnataka has declared drought in 223 of its total 236 taluks. Among them, 196 taluks are in the severely-affected category, including Molakalmuru in Chitradurga.
According to Kamalamma Anjanappa, president, Chikerahalli village panchayat, the person-days were exhausted in her village because the administration took up several works, including the construction of farm bunds, building of sheep and cow sheds, removing silt from canals, rebuilding revetment walls damaged due to soil erosion in farmlands and developing schools and cemetery, under MGNREGA.
Speaking to 101Reporters in early November, Molakalmuru taluk Executive Officer M R Prakash says that 92% of the total person-days in the taluk had been exhausted. ‘Of the 11 lakh person-days, more than 9.59 lakh days have been exhausted. We have taken up activities such as revetment, silt removal, lake revival, construction of compound walls to school, construction and maintenance of farm bunds and road development,’ he says. This figure has increased to 10.9 lakh in less than a month.
Roopa says her family tried to make ends meet by growing groundnuts in their field. ‘The crop was a complete failure. We thought we could at least earn Rs 3,000 by selling groundnut hulls that are used as cattle feed. But even that did not work out. The government should pay us immediately or else we will die of poverty,’ she says.
Across the state, groundnut crop has wilted and maize plants have reached only four to five ft height with the ear of corn mostly missing. Farmers have spent Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 per acre on average for the maize crop. Those who have borrowed seeds and fertilisers are now worried about clearing their debts.
The state government has pegged agriculture and horticulture crop losses due to drought at Rs 35,162 crore in 48.19 lakh hectares this kharif season (July to October). On November 30, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said the state has sought a financial assistance of Rs 18,171.44 crore from the Centre to tide over the drought.
The Meteorological Department website shows a deficit of 65% in monsoon rains up to October in the state. As a result, shortage of livestock fodder and drinking water for both humans and animals have become major issues.
Extension a lifeline
Under the MGNREGA scheme, Centre provides 90% of the labour cost and the state bears the remaining amount for the guaranteed 100 days of work. As for material cost, the share is 75% and 25%, respectively. There is a provision for extension of unskilled wage employment by up to 50 days in a financial year in drought/natural calamity-notified rural areas. The Central government is required to pay for the additional days as well. The last time Karnataka received 50 extra days was during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020.
‘Person-days have been exhausted and cultivation is not possible, so many job card holders travel 60 km to Bellary from our village for road repair and building construction works. They leave by 4 am and return only by 8 pm. If the government provides 50 more working days, at least they can work in their own village and earn,’ Anjanappa says.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Malapati tells 101Reporters that they sent a proposal to the Central government on November 2 regarding the extension of person-days to 50 more days. ‘We expect the announcement will come this month,’ he says. He is quoted as saying in a news report that the state has approached the Centre for additional budgetary allocation of five crore person-days.
Weak monsoons this year have already been thought to have pushed up demand for work under MGNREGA. Chitradurga started exceeding projected person-days from September and in taluks like Molakalmuru, unless the 50 extra days are approved, no MGNREGA work will likely happen for the next three months.
Neela K, state vice president, All India Democratic Women’s Association, says the drought has generated a lot of demand on the ground even though it may not be seen in the demand data —partly because of the reduced budget from the Centre and partly because the gram panchayat, particularly the panchayat development officer, actively hides demand. ‘Sometimes they say there is a server problem, sometimes there is no budget. This time they are using eKYC as an excuse to reject Form 6, which is used to file demand for work.’
‘So people who need work end up being denied it. And this time, because payments are inordinately delayed, they cannot afford to wait for MGNREGA work. They would rather go to the city and work so that they get paid at the end of the day.’
Despite all the problems with the scheme, she asserts that this is a lifeline for the crores of people who have returned to their villages during COVID-19, most of whom have not gone back. In 2016, when the drought situation was particularly dire, 50 extra days were approved, Neela says. This time, it remains to be seen whether the Centre, which has already drastically slashed the MGNREGA budget, will come through.
Sannaiah, meanwhile, hopes that the provision to extend person-days will help the family. He even has the calculation ready. ‘If the authorities provide us with another 50 days, we can earn Rs 15,800,’ he says. Enough to stave off hunger for another season.
Bharat Patel is a Karnataka-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.