Congress President Sonia Gandhi has urged the central government to depoliticise the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. In a column for The Indian Express published on Monday, she asked the Centre to use this “powerful mechanism” to help Indians in “their time of need”.

Gandhi said the MGNREGA was a shining example of radical and rational systemic change. “When ridicule fails to kill a movement it begins to command respect,” she wrote, quoting from Mahatma Gandhi’s book Freedom’s Battle. “…There was no better example of this in independent India than MGNREGA.”

She said the Narendra Modi government tried its best to “throttle the MGNREGA” and undermine its importance in the last six years. “But with the unrelenting pressure of activists, the courts and a vocal Opposition in Parliament, the government was forced to step back,” she added.

She claimed that the Modi government has been disguising Congress initiatives and passing it on as its own reforms, but it has “grudgingly come around” to the significance of the flagship rural relief programme. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the distress it has unleashed has brought the Modi government full circle,” she wrote. “Faced with unprecedented hardship and an economy already in slowdown, the government was obliged to fall back on the UPA’s flagship rural relief programme.”

Gandhi added that the value of MGNREGA has never been clearer than now, when workers from cities are returning to their villages, deprived of employment, and are facing what she termed a “humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale”.

Millions of migrant workers in India were left jobless by the coronavirus-induced lockdown imposed on March 25. Many were forced to make gruelling and dangerous trips back to their hometowns as public transport was not running during the lockdown. At least 170 workers have been killed in accidents on roads or train tracks. Many others died from the exhaustion of walking in the scorching heat. Nearly 80 migrant workers died of starvation or heat sickness between May 9 and May 27 while travelling on special trains provided by the government.

Gandhi noted that in May alone, 2.19 crore households demanded work through the Act – the highest for the month in eight years. “My plea to the government is, this is a time of national crisis, not a time to play politics,” she wrote. “This is not a BJP versus Congress issue.”

She also emphasised on the need for the government to put money directly in the hands of the people in this time of crisis by clearing arrears, ensuring unemployment allowance, and being flexible about modes of payment to the workers to cut delays.

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