The government's claim of "highest-ever" budget allocation for MGNREGA, the rural scheme promising minimum 100 days' employment every year, has failed to impress workers rights groups, who feel the government has "hardly increased" the outlay over last year.
"At first glance, it would seem as if the Finance Minister's announcement of an allocation of Rs.48,000 crore for MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) is a dramatic increase of nearly 25 per cent over last year's allocation of Rs.38,500 crore.
"But, in fact, the increase is a mere one per cent, of Rs.500 crore, as two supplementary allocations during the course of the year took the total outlay in 2016-17 to Rs.47,500 crore," People's Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) said in a statement on Thursday.
The organisation consists of a number of other associations, like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, National Federation of Indian Women and Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan.
It said the government is left with only about Rs.1,000 crore from the previous budget allocation, while a total of Rs.3,469 crore is yet to be paid to the workers for the work done during this period. The liabilities, it said, will only increase as the demand for work is supposed to peak in the next two months.
The workers' rights body also cited the Supreme Court directive to the government to release the employees' wages in a timely manner, which it said is not happening, as evident from the backlog of payments.
"There have been a string of Supreme Court orders directing the government to release the payment to the workers on time. But the government has proved to be far from perfect in this regard," Nikhil Dey, a social activist associated with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, told IANS.
"Will you work for me when I am unable to pay you for long periods of time? The government can't give money to give wages to its employees … It has gone bankrupt," he said.
The PAEG highlighted that since the budget funds can only be released in April, an additional sum of Rs.10,013 crore for the months of February and March 2017 will also add to the amount pending from last year.
"This means that we would end this financial year with close to Rs.13,482 crore in pending liabilities and a budgetary allocation that has not even kept pace with the last year's amount in real terms," it said.
On the contrary, a government official talking to IANS found the budget allocation "very robust" and said that the increase for this year will suffice to meet the expenditure needs.
"There is no vote-on-account this year. There is no cap on release in the initial part of financial year 2017-18. The sum of Rs.48,000 crore is 25 per cent increase over the 'Budget Estimate' of financial year 2016-17," said Aparajita Sarangi, Joint Secretary (MGNREGA), Ministry of Rural Development.
"The MGNREGA is a demand-driven programme and the government has allocated sufficient funds for running the programme in the next fiscal year," she said.
The presentation of the budget was advanced to February 1, as told by the government, to enable Parliament to avoid a vote-on-account and pass a single Appropriation Bill for 2017-18, before the close of the current financial year.
"This would enable the ministries and departments to operationalise all schemes and projects, including the new ones, right from the commencement of the next financial year," Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley reasoned in his Budget speech on Wednesday.
A 'vote-on-account' literally means voting on the account of the government, providing it with a fund for the interim period before the budget goes to debate in Parliament and is passed subsequently.
However, the PAEG representatives remain disappointed with the "ostensible" claim of the big pie and getting a piece, which is being made still more tedious with Aadhaar being mandatory for workers from the coming financial year.
"The Apex Court has a number of times cautioned the government to do away with the requirement of Aadhaar for getting work under MGNREGA, which it anyway introduced… thus the government stands in contempt of court, a matter which is being pursued by people," Nikhil Dey said.
Asked about the spike in demand for MGNREGA jobs post demonetisation, Nikhil Dey told IANS: "See, MGNREGA is the job of last resort for those who can't find work anywhere, and if the government doesn't pay within 15 days it defeats the purpose. Overall, such a correlation (between rise in MGNREGA job seekers and demonetisation) would have mattered had there been money with the government. Such rise is not long term. However, there may be a big spurt in jobs under MGNREGA in April as the government has just announced the budget and is ready with money."