Campaigning in 2014, Narendra Modi mocked the Congress party for harping on poverty while failing to improve the lives of the poor. As the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he claimed his government would create jobs and increase economic opportunities to enable people to prosper without the crutches of social welfare.

Five years later, there is little evidence to show his government has delivered on those promises. The unemployment rate has risen to a 45-year high. Social welfare is back in discussion with the Congress promising a basic minimum income to the poor, if elected to power. In the interim budget announced on Friday, the Modi government announced an income support scheme for farmers.

In the villages of Andhra Pradesh, however, there is not much enthusiasm for Modi government’s older schemes or newer promises of income support. Instead, the poor are nostalgic for the time when they got regular work and wages under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

T Nanjamma could not send five of her six children to college. A decade ago, life was tough for the family. They had no money. “If I had to educate them all, my husband and I would have to leave this earth for heaven,” she said.

Like the other Madiga Dalits living in Jilledukunta village in Anantapur district, her family did not own any land. They toiled on other people’s fields. A day’s labour fetched them merely a quarter kilo of ragi or just Rs 12.

In the pursuit of higher wages, some men went to Bengaluru, 100 km away. But Madiga women were trapped in a life of indignity, beholden to the higher caste landowners who employed them.

Then came the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government passed the law in 2005, assuring every rural family of 100 days of work at the minimum wage. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh travelled to Anantapur to launch the scheme in 2006.

The Madigas of Jilledukunta remember that as a momentous occasion. “An official came to the village and said you don’t have to go to Bengaluru for coolie work,” recalled Laxmi Narsappa, 56. “You can earn right here.”

With both men and women earning equal wages, their lives began to change for the better. Narsappa stopped going to Bengaluru. Nanjamma saved enough to build a pucca home. She sent her last born child to college to study for a bachelor’s degree in commerce – “the one he can work in a bank with”.

But over the last three years, the dream has soured. Wage payments under NREGA have become irregular. “Earlier they used to come on time, within 10 days of work, now we have to wait for months,” said Nanjamma, clutching paper slips that show she worked for five weeks between October and December, work for which she has not been paid.

She is not alone. Across the state, on January 30, wage payments of Rs 498 crore were pending, with Rs 62 crore in Anantapur district alone.

While state governments generate payment orders under NREGA, the actual payments are made by the Centre directly into workers’ bank accounts. Andhra Pradesh government’s website showed it had generated payment orders within 15 days in 98.78% cases this year – 97.43% in just three days. This meant the Centre was entirely responsible for the delays.

In the last week of January, the state rural development minister met his counterpart in the central government to remind him that wages had not been released since November 15 and to urge him to clear the dues.

In the far corner of Anantapur, unaware of what was causing the delays, workers like Nanjamma were tiring themselves out by making trips to the bank to enquire about their pending payments. Irate officials would shoo them away, saying, “You have no other work that you have come to harass us.”

The worst fallout of the pending payments was Nanjamma missed the deadline for paying her son’s college fees. The authorities threatened to disallow him from taking the final year exam. Nanjamma was forced to seek help from the same feudal system she thought she had escaped. “I didn’t want him to cry and drop out, so I arranged Rs 2,000 from others whose land my husband worked on as a coolie,” she said.

Nanjamma (in red saree) among other women in Jilledukunta village who are waiting for their NREGA wages. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Rural distress beyond farmers

In the summer of 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi campaigned in Andhra Pradesh with Chandrababu Naidu, leader of then alliance partner Telugu Desam Party, by his side. The Lok Sabha elections were being held simultaneous to the state assembly polls, barely four months after Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation.

With the newly created Telangana state getting 10 of the 23 districts, along with cash-rich Hyderabad city, the residents of the remaining 13 districts – then called Seemandhra – were feeling raw and insecure.

Stoking their resentment, at public meetings held in neighbouring Chittoor district, Modi accused the Congress of betraying the people of Seemandhra. He promised to make the state Swarnim Andhra – or golden Andhra.

His speeches were saturated with the language of aspiration. There were no references to the region’s chronic drought, high levels of poverty, failing agriculture – only promises to increase cold storage facilities and ensure higher incomes for farmers growing perishable crops like tomato.

In the five years since then, at least twice, tomato prices here have crashed, forcing farmers to dump their produce on the roads. No new cold storage facility has come up. Modi may have coined the acronym TOP – tomato, onion, potato – to signal his government’s special focus on vegetable growers, but that has done little to stem the distress.

But rural distress goes beyond the agrarian crisis.

While the Modi government’s failure to provide remunerative prices to farmers has attracted some attention, its failure to raise rural incomes at large has not.

The most vulnerable in rural India are unskilled workers who do not own land – or own merely small parcels. While men migrate to cities to look for work, women and the elderly are unable to do so. Since the government’s draconian demonetisation move, even those rural workers who had moved out of agriculture to work in factories and on construction sites had to return to the villages.

For such workers, NREGA could have been an important social safety net – but that did not happen.

Andhra Pradesh claims to have built 18,857-km of all-weather cement roads in villages using NREGA funds. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

‘Living monument to UPA’s failures’

In the first year of the Modi government, the allocation for NREGA remained stagnant at Rs 33,000 crore. On the floor of Parliament, the prime minister mocked NREGA, calling it “a living monument to UPA’s failures”.

Over the next few years, allocations rose in absolute terms, with the government claiming to have made the highest-ever allocation to the scheme in 2017-’18. But calculations showed that adjusted for inflation, the allocation was lower in actual terms.

Moreover, researchers have repeatedly pointed out that the allocations are inadequate since work demand registered under NREGA outstrips work provided. The law mandates that the government provide 100 days of work to every rural family that demands it – or pay an unemployment allowance. Based on an analysis of work demand registered in 20 states, Rajendra Narayanan of the Azim Premji University and independent researchers Sakina Dhorajiwala and Rajesh Golani estimated an minimal outlay of Rs 85,000 crore was required for NREGA in 2018-’19, while the government had allocated only Rs 61,084 crore.

On Friday, in the interim budget, the government announced an even smaller allocation for 2019-’20: just Rs 55,000 crore.

For workers, the most severe crisis, however, is when they get work but not wages.

Under the law, the government must pay workers within 15 days. But examining data for 3,400 panchayats in 10 states, Narayanan, Dhorajiwala and Golani found the Centre had delayed wage payments by 63 days on average.

Strikingly, the delays were higher in opposition-ruled states.

Credit: Budget Briefs by Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research

“Modi cannot stop NREGA but he is crippling it,” said Satya Babu Bose of the Centre for Rural Studies and Development in Anantapur. “Because of the delays, workers are losing confidence in NREGA.”

An old man clutches a bundle of paper slips showing the number of days he has worked under NREGA, work for which he has not been paid. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

When high spending creates a crisis

The crisis of delayed payments is the most acute in Andhra Pradesh.

On January 31, the Centre owed it Rs 1,673 crore as pending liabilities – the highest among all states. Part of the reason is that the state is currently the highest spender under the scheme.

Bifurcation had left Andhra Pradesh with fewer sources of revenue. Faced with a fund squeeze, Chandrababu Naidu took to NREGA in a big way. “He realised it is the only central scheme without a cap,” explained Bose. “Based on demand [for work], you can ask the government of India for more funds.”

While NREGA was primarily envisioned as a bottoms-up programme that responded to people’s demand for work, Naidu implemented it in a top-down manner to raise money to build assets that his government could not otherwise fund.

For this, he made the scheme’s funds available to 20 departments – “convergence” in official jargon. Then, he ramped up NREGA projects, knowing that for every Rs 6 that workers got as wage payments, the state would get Rs 4 to cover material costs.

The outcomes are mixed: on one hand, his government has created a record number of farm ponds – nearly six lakh – while also using NREGA to save projects under the Integrated Watershed Management Programme for which the Modi government had questionably withdrawn funding.

More dubiously, however, the Naidu government has used the material budget of NREGA to build concrete structures like cement roads and check dams.

A check dam built with NREGA funds in Anantapur district. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

Initially, the Modi government approved the approach, giving Andhra Pradesh awards for “convergence” and asking other states to similarly focus on “asset creation”.

But in 2017, the rural development ministry said it had detected “irregularities” in the way Andhra Pradesh was implementing the scheme, which had prompted it to withhold NREGA funds from the state.

“Whatever be the reason, the workers are the worst sufferers,” said Chakradhar Buddha, who closely tracks the implementation of NREGA in Andhra Pradesh’s Adivasi areas.

As it happened, the same year, the BJP-TDP alliance entered a phase of turbulence. By March 2018, the two parties split.

In Andhra Pradesh, many believe the Centre is deliberately delaying the release of NREGA funds, knowing this will hurt Naidu’s electoral prospects.

In Manimadugu village in Penukonda block, angry residents declared they had stopped doing NREGA work because of the long pending payments. Asked who they held responsible for the delays, Narayan Swamy, 58, said: “When we go to the mandal office, they say money has not come from the top. Who is the top, we don’t know.”

M Malathy, 41, asked: “Isn’t it Chandrababu Naidu?”

M Malathy believes Chandrababu Naidu is responsible for the NREGA wage payment delay. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

The larger debate on rural incomes

In the Congress-led UPA government, rural development was an important portfolio held by a cabinet-rank minister. Under Modi, that is no longer the case. No major programme has been launched by the rural development ministry. The ministry is implementing the rural component of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana but other flagship rural schemes like the Swachh Bharat Mission are being implemented by other ministries.

While the main impact of NREGA was boosting rural incomes, Modi government’s schemes have focused on creating assets in the form of toilets and houses.

But in Anantapur district, people say they prefer income over assets.

“Money helps us overcome difficulties,” said Rangalakshmi K, 40, who lives in Balasamudram village. “To repay loans, see our children through school, survive – there is a whole range of things that a house will not pay for.”

Unlike NREGA, in which the poor self-select themselves for work, other schemes face the challenge of identifying beneficiaries, a process which is controlled by the ruling party’s cadres in Andhra Pradesh.

“For these other things – houses, gas – we have to chase party leaders,” explained Laxmi Narsappa in Jilledukunta village. “We have to fill forms, shut our mouths, fold our hands in front of them.” In contrast, NREGA was available to all those who were willing to do hard work, he said.

“If we work hard at NREGA jobs, we can build all of these things ourselves, can’t we?” said Nirmala KS, 36.

The squeeze on rural incomes in the last few years has fuelled a discussion on income support schemes. Telangana has implemented the Rythu Bandhu scheme which offers cash transfers of Rs 4,000 per acre to farmers. Inspired by this example, on February 1, the Modi government announced an annual scheme that will provide Rs 6,000 per year for farmers with less than five acres of land.

But in the villages of Anantapur, many people rejected such income support ideas. “For those who don’t have land, how will they deposit this money?” asked Rajamma Durgappa, 60. “Only those with land will benefit, right?”

Many have pointed out that most Indian states do not have clear land records to implement such schemes.

Widening the scope of income support beyond landowners, Odisha has launched a scheme that provides Rs 12,500 to landless workers. The Congress party too has promised a national basic minimum income scheme for the poor, but has not spelt out the details.

Surprisingly, even such ideas had few takers in Anantapur villages.

“Supposing they deposited Rs 4,000, we would spend it,” said Hanumanth Goud, 26. “If we had NREGA, then there would always be work and we would always have money when we need it.”

Gangratnamma K, 42, chimed in: “Increase the number of days, increase how much we are paid as wages.”

At the current wage rate of Rs 205, a family in Andhra Pradesh could earn upto Rs 20,500 under NREGA in a normal year, and upto Rs 30,750 during a declared drought – significantly higher than the income support of Rs 6,000 announced by the Modi government. Besides, the villagers pointed out the severe drought had laid all farmlands to waste and NREGA was helping them in soil and water conservation.

“We have no use for free money,” said Rajamma Durgappa, with a wave of her hand. “Give us work, we don’t want any money that doesn’t come from hard work.”

Hanumanth Goud would be eligible for the Modi government's farmer income support scheme. But he wants the government to fund NREGA instead. Photo: Aruna Chandrasekhar

All photographs and translations from the Telugu by Aruna Chandrasekhar.

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