At the end of December 2015, the central rural development ministry was in a state of panic. Nine of India’s largest states had declared drought in several districts. The scant kharif harvest meant many farm labourers, who might have been employed on fields, went without work. Water was so scarce that many farms weren’t sowing a winter crop, further diminishing employment prospects. In greater numbers than usual, farm workers sought support, as they have done in the past ten years, from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or the NREGA, which guarantees at least 100 days of employment at minimum wage each year to every rural household. In December alone, demand for work under the act was twice what it was over the same month in 2014.
But 95 percent of the funds allocated to the scheme in the budget last March had already been spent. Twelve states, including the drought-hit Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, had spent more money than they had been allotted. This meant that work under the programme could soon grind to a halt. It was under these circumstances that Birendra Singh, the minister for rural development, wrote to the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, seeking additional funds of Rs 5,000 crore. (On 25 February, the journalist Nitin Sethi reported in Business Standard that the centre owed states Rs 5,595 crore for work completed under the scheme.)
Singh’s letter seemed at odds with Modi’s leanings, given how vociferously the prime minister has opposed the programme. While campaigning for the 2014 general elections, Modi used the NREGA as political ammunition against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, declaring in Karnataka, “When the pockets of Congress are full, you can call it NREGA.” At other times, he offered incomprehensible policy alternatives, such as changing the programme’s name from an “employment” guarantee scheme to a “development” guarantee scheme.