In the Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh, at the western edge of Bundelkhand region in central India, you do not have to knock on doors to learn of people’s grievances. They pour out. An outsider walking around the streets with a notebook and a pen is a person of interest to everyone. Whenever I began speaking to a person sitting on his haunches by the road or his arid field, villagers would gather around. “Note my name too,” I was told repeatedly.
In November 2015, 50 districts in the state were declared drought-hit; the seven in Bundelkhand are among the worst affected. Crops of soybean and urad dal were laid waste by the rainless monsoon, and now the unnaturally hot winter is stunting the growth of wheat. Several newspapers have reported on rural distress and farmer suicides in the region. Despite government schemes that guarantee work, opportunities for employment are scarce. It was a matter of earnest consensus among the villagers I spoke to that the government should do something about it.
On paper at least, the government has done something. In the first week of January this year, Home Minister Rajnath Singh chaired a committee that approved an amount of Rs 1304 crore as assistance for the state. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was present at these meetings. That was more than a month before I visited Lalitpur. So far, the money does not seem to have trickled down to its intended beneficiaries and when it will, remains an open question. No one I spoke to had even heard of the relief package.
A day before my visit to the region, on 2 February, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or the NREGA, had completed a decade of its existence. The previous government’s flagship programme, the NREGA guarantees 100 days of paid work to every rural household in a financial year. Last February, the prime minister had repudiated the scheme. Speaking in the parliament, he said that he was only letting it stand as a monument to the previous government’s failures. This year, his government hailed the act’s achievements as a “cause of national pride.” The perceptual flip-flop over the NREGA, especially in the times of rural crisis, is not new for the ruling party. When hailstorms destroyed crops in 26 districts across the state in March 2015, the BJP government in Rajasthan had a similar revelation. Currently, 285 districts across ten states have been declared drought-hit.
The most successful year for the NREGA was 2010-11, when it cost the then prevailing United Progressive Alliance government Rs 39,377 crore. The wages given under the scheme are revised every year. Last year, they were increased by five percent. In the 2015 budget, the ministry of rural development was allotted Rs 34699 crore for the scheme. Even if the present government wished to generate the same amount of employment as it did in 2010-11, taking into account the rate of inflation, it should have allocated Rs 61445 crore instead. In September, the ministry of rural development allowed an additional 50 days of employment in drought-hit areas; but it did not have enough money fund this extension.