Sarika Malhotra, assistant editor, Business Today
The finance minister has enhanced budgetary allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) to Rs 34,699 crore from Rs 34,000 crore last year.
But the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government's flagship job guarantee scheme is probably facing its toughest test.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an indirect scathing attack on the scheme a day before the Budget, calling it the Congress's biggest failure. "The MNREGA is a living epitome of your (the Congress's) failures. After 60 years, the people of this country are being compelled to dig ditches," said Modi.
MNREGA promises to provide 100 days of manual work per year to all rural households. The scheme was launched with much fanfare in February 2006 and was an important factor in helping the UPA retain power in 2009.
The MNREGA has been marred by rampant leakages of funds and large-scale corruption. It has been under the scanner ever since it was launched, with little to show in terms of assets created.
Attacking Congress, the PM had announced: 'You might doubt my other capabilities but one thing you will accept is that I have a good political understanding. So, I am not going to stop the job guarantee scheme because the MNREGA is a living epitome of your failures.'
Now, given the PM's stand on MNREGA on Friday, Arun Jaitley's announcement seemed rhetorical. 'Our government is committed to supporting employment through MGNREGA. We will ensure that no one who is poor is left without employment. We will focus on improving the quality and effectiveness of activities under MGNREGA', he said.
'I have made an initial allocation of Rs 34,699 crore for the programme.' Even his announcement to increase allocation by an additional Rs 5,000 crore, if the government is able to garner more resources, seemed like a mere lip service to the programme.
Clearly, the views of the PM took away the sheen from the nominal increase in allocation for the world's largest welfare programme in the Budget.
Social activist Nikhil Dey said that the increase in allocation should be taken with a pinch of salt. It seems that there are bigger political agendas at play.
With a confusing stance from the government on MNREGA, it remains to be seen what the future of the programme will be and whether it will create real assets as promised.