‘Basically, Seeman seems to have not understood the concept of NREGA,’ says a leading Tamil Nadu economist, and adds that the scheme does not even compete with agricultural labour.

Naam Thamizhar Katchi leader Seeman speaking into a mic in a black shirtFacebook
news Rural Employment Friday, October 08, 2021 - 16:31

Naam Thamizhar Katchi leader Seeman recently kicked up a controversy by demanding the scrapping of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, claiming that the NREGA scheme was detrimental to agriculture and people working under the scheme were “idling their time away”. “From playing pallanguzhi (a traditional indoor game) to making themselves up with talcum powder”, they were idling their time away instead of working, Seeman charged. This, he said, was detrimental to agriculture, because labour was scarcely available for farming works. The demand found some support in the BJP too with the state president K Annamalai stating that Seeman’s demand was fair.

However, the demand has been widely criticised for its narrow and anti-people outlook. “This is the only government scheme aimed at providing employment opportunities to rural India. The BJP government has cut down on the financial allotment for the scheme. Seeman echoes the same sentiment,” says P Shanmugam, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Association.

The scheme, Shanmugam says, largely provides income to women from agrarian families. “Agricultural labourers and women from agrarian families constitute the NREGA workforce. The scheme helps destitute women to lead an independent and autonomous life. The accusation that the scheme takes away employment from agriculture is baseless.”

“Basically, Seeman seems to have not understood the concept of NREGA,” says a leading Tamil Nadu economist, who preferred to remain anonymous. “The scheme is meant for a rural household, not an individual. The average days clocked by a family every year is 50 to 52. The average size of a family is four, which means only 12 out of 365 days are for the NREGA scheme. How does this affect or even compete with agricultural labour?” he asks.

Shanmugam also points out that agriculture is largely mechanised. “From harvest to post-harvest, everything is mechanised. Agriculture is now largely under the control of MNCs, and agricultural labourers are actually losing their jobs. So the reality is that labourers are shifting to other jobs or migrating to other places. But Seeman calls them lazy,” he rues.

The economist also says there are many other reasons for the decreasing agricultural workforce. “One, fertility transition. Today, the birth rate in Tamil Nadu is among the lowest in the country. It is much below the replacement level. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu is among the top performing states in per capita income. Thirdly, social justice measures have ensured that people have had the opportunity and access to education. Combined together, all these factors have put the gross enrolment ratio at 54%. Which means that 54% are into education. This has not happened even in Western Europe or the United States.”

The economist says that in an aspirational society, everybody wants to move up in life and this has manifested at various levels. “In rural Tamil Nadu, you will now find many new houses coming up. It is evident that people are willing to spend more on education and health. We are seeing the effects now. From Singapore to Europe and the United States, we see students from ordinary backgrounds from Tamil Nadu in various roles – from manual labour to super-speciality roles.”

He also points out that the average age of women in agricultural work today is 50. “Younger women are not taking up agricultural labour.  There is also a diversification in terms of occupation and employment opportunities. Today only 26% of rural households are into farming. But the production has not decreased.”

While there is indeed a dent in the agricultural workforce due to various factors as pointed out by Shanmugam and the economist, the NREGA scheme is hardly one of the reasons. “The demand to scrap NREGA thus becomes fundamentally baseless, and lacks clarity,” the economist says. In fact, he says, Tamil Nadu is among the best performing states under the Act.

But activists point out that NREGA has other issues. ASP Jhansi Rani, former president of the Tamil Nadu Mahila Congress, says the rural poor were affected by “corruption” in the scheme. “I did a field study at Dindigul [where the scheme was first launched in Tamil Nadu] last year. And found that there was hesitancy in employing women over 50 even though they were willing to work. The officials were also demanding bribe to issue cards for work. People told me that they worked only for 20 to 30 days but had to sign for 100 days, the money for which was taken away. The scheme was introduced by the Congress for the benefit of the rural poor. But today, people are struggling to reap its benefits. To add insult to injury, Seeman calls them lazy. His demand for scrapping the act is totally condemnable. If anything, the government should ensure that the scheme is properly implemented to really benefit the rural poor.”

Based on the field study, Jhansi had sent a representation to the Dindigul Collector in June 2020 seeking redressal for those affected.

Shanmugam agrees with Jhansi: “If there are issues in implementing the scheme, the demand should be to sort out those issues. To demand the scrapping of an act that provides livelihood to crores of people living in rural areas is totally unjust and anti-people.”

Kavitha Muralidharan is a senior journalist based out of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are the author’s own.