The solution is universal -Rajendran Narayanan & Debmalya Nandy

-The Hindu

Strengthening the MGNREGA would be more prudent than a targeted cash transfer plan like PM-KISAN


Rural distress has hit unprecedented levels. According to news reports, unemployment is the highest in 45 years. To allay some misgivings of the distress, one of the announcements in the Budget speech was that “vulnerable landholding farmer families, having cultivable land up to 2 hectares, will be provided direct income support at the rate of ? 6,000 per year”.

This cash transfer scheme has been called Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN). The Ministry of Agriculture has written to State governments to prepare a database of all eligible beneficiaries along with their Aadhaar numbers, and update land records “expeditiously”. The letter further states that changes in land records after February 1, 2019 shall not be considered for this scheme.

A comparison


Undoubtedly, farmers’ distress needs urgent attention but let’s see if the PM-KISAN is a reasonable solution. Let us first compare some basic numbers with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). For example, if two members of a household in Jharkhand work under MGNREGA (picture) for 30 days, they would earn ?10,080 and a household of two in Haryana would earn ?16,860 in 30 days. Jharkhand has the lowest daily MGNREGA wage rate, and Haryana the highest. Put simply, a month of MGNREGA earnings for a household is more than a year’s income support through PM-KISAN anywhere in the country.

PM-KISAN is a targeted cash transfer programme and MGNREGA is a universal programme. Any rural household willing to do manual work is eligible under the Act. According to the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census, around 40% of rural households are landless and depend on manual labour. The landless can earn through the MGNREGA but are not eligible for the PM-KISAN scheme. Notwithstanding the meagre amount, the PM-KISAN might be pitting the landless against a small farmer.

Further, it is unclear how tenant farmers, those without titles, and women farmers would be within the ambit of the scheme. There is also substantial evidence to demonstrate that universal schemes are less prone to corruption than targeted schemes. In targeted programmes, it is very common to have errors of exclusion, i.e., genuine beneficiaries get left out. Such errors go unrecorded and people continue to be left out. It is in some of these contexts that strengthening an existing universal programme such as the MGNREGA would have been a prudent move instead of introducing a hasty targeted cash transfer programme.

The Agriculture Ministry’s letter states that “funds will be electronically transferred to the beneficiary’s bank account by [Government of India] through State Notional Account on a pattern similar to MGNREGS”. There are important lessons to be learned from the MGNREGA implementation. The Centre has frequently tinkered with the wage payments system in the MGNREGA. It’s creditable that timely generation of pay-orders have improved, but contrary to the Centre’s claims, less than a third of the payments were made on time. And in contempt of the Supreme Court orders, the Centre alone has been causing a delay of more than 50 days in disbursing wages.

Field realities


Moreover, repeated changes in processes result in a hurried bureaucratic reorientation on the ground, and much chaos among workers and field functionaries alike. Field functionaries are pushed to meet stiff targets. Being short-staffed and inadequately trained, this results in many technical and unforeseen errors. A case in point is the rushed manner in which Aadhaar has been implemented for the MGNREGA.

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The Hindu, 11 February, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-solution-is-universal/article26231342.ece?homepage=true

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