The Subversion of MGNREGS -Prabhat Patnaik
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that brought the MGNREGS into being was a unique piece of legislation in the history of independent India. It stipulated that employment was to be made available on demand, within a fortnight of being asked for, failing which an unemployment allowance had to be paid. True, its scope was confined only to rural areas, and it promised employment only up to 100 days per household per year; but it made employment a right. The fact that it was passed unanimously by parliament, after much deliberation, meant that parliament was in effect creating an economic right and thereby filling an important lacuna of the Indian Constitution, which, as is well-known, guarantees to every citizen only a set of social and political rights but no economic rights.
The MGNREGS therefore broke completely new ground. There had been anti-poverty programmes earlier, including the well-known food-for-work programme. But they contained no guarantees. There were budgetary provisions for them which could change from one year to the next; and, correspondingly, their scale, limited by the budgetary provision, could also wax and wane. But the MGNREGS was totally different; it offered a guarantee, and in the process not only created an economic right but also gave a deeper meaning to the concept of citizenship. Every citizen, including the most abject mendicant in the country, paid taxes to the State via the indirect levies on what he bought, but the State earlier did practically nothing for the citizen in return. To say that it provided “security” to the citizen meant little, since the “security” it did provide meant little to the poor. The MGNREGS, by contrast, promised to usher in a new era where the State would provide a degree of economic security to its citizens, which meant something to the poor.
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