Recently, Rural Development minister Jairam Ramesh, rubbished the need for freezing the flagship rural job scheme MNREGA during peak agricultural season. Dismissing the possibility, Ramesh had said: “The matter has been examined by the Mihir Shah committee and rejected.” Knowing that Mihir Shah’s entry into Planning Commission was entirely based on his blind support for MNREGA, I am not the least surprised. What baffles me is the ease with which Jairam Ramesh, one of the more sensible of the Cabinet ministers, rejects the need when the farming community is faced with a terrible shortage of labour at the time of harvest.
Jairam Ramesh was reacting to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s simple and long standing demand for freezing MNREGA activities in the three peak months of harvesting and sowing. This also found a mention in the Economic Survey 2012 thereby inviting Ramesh’s ire. The Survey had rightly stated: “While the overall performance of MNREGA has been good, there is scope for improvements like focused planning, shifting to permanent asset and infrastructure building activities .. avoiding peak seasons in agriculture.”
Considering that MNREGA provides for 100 days assured employment, and there are 365 days in a year, I don’t see why the Planning Commission, the Ministry for Rural Development, and as well as the National Advisory Council, should have any objections to the legitimate demand of the Agriculture ministry. After all, if rural employment guarantee programme is hampering agricultural operations, the first and foremost need is to redraw the contours of the programme in a manner that agriculture is least affected. Even if it needs an amendment in the MNREGA Act, it must be done. At no cost can the employment guarantee programme be allowed to play havoc with farming operations.
In any case, MNREGA is supposed to provide assured employment during the lean months and I see no logic in continuing with its activities at a time when agricultural operations are at its peak. This is a time when rural labour in gainfully employed. I see no reason why the Ministry of Rural Development should wean away farm workers at a time when they get assured employment. The basic objective of the rural employment scheme is to supplement job creating rather than to displace workers from agriculture and employ them instead in some mundane activities like digging ponds.
MNREGA has completed five years. And it is in these five years that the crisis in agriculture has also worsened. In lot many ways I find the terrible agrarian crisis directly proportionate to the absence of farm labour in the rural areas. With labour moving to non-farm activities, and with reports of massive corruption that prevails in the way the rural employment guarantee scheme is being operated, it is a known fact that workers now get paid for not doing anything. They get reduced wages but often do not have to work, just sign. Travelling across the country I find workers sitting idle when farm operations are at its peak.
Acute paucity of farm workers is also among the reasons why more and more farmers are quitting agriculture. Let us not forget that over 60 per cent of those who seek guaranteed employment are marginal farmers owning small tracts of land. Sharad Pawar is therefore absolutely right when he demands freezing the employment guarantee scheme at the peak periods of farm operations. Not paying heed to the crying need will ultimately kill agriculture.
Source: Tehelka, Mar 31, 2012