Thirty-six year old Bhadu Mahato from Lalpur village in Purulia district of West Bengal is worried that she might not get her wages of around Rs 2,700 for the work she had done under the 100-days job scheme way back in 2021. But her bigger fear is that she may stand to lose the job forever if the Centre continues to withhold funding support to the State. Bhadu is not alone. Thousands of other men and women in Purulia fear that the 100-days job scheme under MGNREGA may not be rolled out in West Bengal anytime soon.
Their fears may not be totally unfounded as the approved labour budget under the scheme for West Bengal for 2023-24 is 0 as on April 9, 2023, as per the website. An estimated 263.02 lakh workers are engaged under the scheme, and the total number of job cards issued stands at 138.56 lakh for FY-24.
The Central Government imposed Section 27 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, on West Bengal last year, which has led to a complete freeze on funding support to the State. Section 27 of the MGNREGA is imposed on grounds of complaints of misappropriation or other irregularities.
The total amount outstanding to workers in West Bengal stands at close to Rs 2,700 crore, sources said.
“They have not given us money for the work we did in 2021. My husband and son have moved to other states in search of jobs, and I am barely able to survive with the meagre income earned from doing trivial jobs in households. Agriculture is not an option for us here in the absence of adequate water supply. We have been solely dependent on the NREGA scheme for our livelihood. Not only have payments been deferred, but we have hardly had any work to do for more than a year now ... we fear that they may not give us any more jobs under the scheme,” a visibly upset Mahato told businessline.
Drop in approved labour budget
The last approved labour budget for the State, which stood at Rs 2,700 lakh, was for 2021-22. In terms of financial progress, the total release by the Centre is 0 for FY-24, Rs 1.32 crore for FY-23, and Rs 7,591 crore for FY-22.
According to the NREG Act, the district programme coordinator should prepare, in December every year, a labour budget for the next financial year, containing details of anticipated demand for unskilled manual work in the district and the plan to engage labourers in works covered under the scheme. The Ministry of Rural Development would estimate the funds requirement on the basis of projections made in the labour budget. Central funds would be sanctioned after examining these labour budgets and taking into account utilisation of funds previously released.
The total number of works taken up for West Bengal, which includes new and spill-over work, is estimated at 11.49 lakh in FY-24, down from 16.96 lakh in 2022-23 and 28.78 lakh in 2021-22.
Though there is no official confirmation from the state government, bureaucrats working in the districts confirm that there has been no communication from the Centre on whether the clamp-down of Section 27 would be lifted anytime soon.
“There is a huge demand for work among people in the districts……..if this doesn’t happen, it could force people to resort to illegal activities,” a senior official said.
The steep cut in budget outlay for the overall NREGA scheme and the huge outstanding to workers in West Bengal are examples of consistent attacks on the scheme with a view to finish it, said Anuradha Talwar, State committee member of the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity.