The demand for MGNREGA jobs has gone down by 18 per cent in the first half of this financial year. While 210.02 crore person-days were generated between March and September 2021, in the same period in 2022, it was just 172.48 crore. In 2020-21, during the first wave of the pandemic, it was a record 226.68 crore.

Falling demand for work under this scheme indicates that migrant labourers who had come home during the pandemic are moving back to the cities as economic activity normalises. However, a closer look at the data tells us the fall in demand was not uniform.

NREGA person-days generated went down by 83 per cent in West Bengal, 56 per cent in Chhattisgarh and 27 per cent in Haryana, which is also the State that currently pays the highest NREGA wage. In Tamil Nadu, it was down 13 per cent.

However, eight States saw an uptick in demand. The rise was the steepest in Bihar, where person-days went up 65 per cent to 16.59 crore in H1 FY23. In H1 FY22, it was 10.67 crore. Bihar pays its NREGA labourers ₹210 per day — one of the lowest wages in the country.

Similarly, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh saw 50.14 per cent and 24.36 per cent increase in terms of person-days generated, respectively.

The decline in demand can provide some relief to the fiscally strained Central government. While the scheme’s budget was a massive ₹1,10,527.4 crore in the first year of the pandemic, it remained elevated at ₹97,034.7 crore and ₹72,034.65 crore in FY22 and FY23, respectively.  

Drawing demand

Until September, the demand for NREGA jobs was driven by six States — Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh — which account for almost half of the total person-days generated in the first six months of the financial year. While it was 21.2 crore in Uttar Pradesh (the State that generated the most jobs this fiscal), it was 18.1 crore in Rajasthan, 17.3 crore in Tamil Nadu, 17.2 crore in Andhra Pradesh and 16.5 crore in Madhya Pradesh.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was passed in the parliament on August 23, 2005., and was implemented the following year. “It aims to enhance livelihood and security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of employment in a financial year to every household,” reads its mission statement. The jobs include cleaning canals and drains, tilling, ploughing and clearing weeds.