Congress President Sonia Gandhi said that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the Modi government full circle and added that in the face of an economic slowdown, the government was "obliged to fall back" on UPA's Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
In a column for The Indian Express, Gandhi highlighted the benefits of the flagship rural relief programme and termed it a "shining example of a radical and rational systemic change." The Congress matriarch added that a government that sought to denigrate it has come to "reluctantly rely on it."
"Along with the Public Distribution System put in place by an earlier Congress government, it is the mainstay for our poorest and most vulnerable citizens in preventing starvation and destitution wherever implemented in letter and spirit, especially in today’s COVID-19 crisis," she wrote.
Gandhi further claimed that upon assuming office PM Modi had realised that shutting down the scheme was not practical and instead he sought to deride it by terming it “a living monument of your failure”.
"In the years since, the Modi government tried its best to throttle the MGNREGA, hollowing it out and undermining it. But with the unrelenting pressure of activists, the courts and a vocal Opposition in Parliament, the government was forced to step back," Gandhi wrote.
Gandhi said that the value of MGNREGA has never been clearer as it is 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."
Detailing the measures the Centre must take amid the ongoing health crisis, the Congress president says that one immediate step must be the issuance of job cards in the programme.
"The panchayats, empowered by Rajiv Gandhi’s path-breaking initiatives, must be brought centre-stage as the MGNREGA is not a centralised programme. The capacity of panchayats to manage public works projects must be strengthened and devolution of funds to panchayats must be prioritised," she wrote.
Gandhi added that the nature of work must be left to gram sabhas as local elected bodies understand the ground realities.
She 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.
"The Modi government has not paid heed to demands to increase the number of workdays to 200 and to allow them to be registered at the worksites in every gram panchayat. The MGNREGA must be ensured open-ended funding as it was meant to be," she said.
She further accused the Modi-led government of giving MGNREGA a "new appearance" by integrating it with PM's pet programmes like Swachh Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana.
"These were passed off as reforms but, in reality, they were no more than a barely disguised dressing up of Congress party initiatives," she alleged.
Gandhi also took a swipe at the Centre over finance minister's increase in allocation to the scheme and said: "Deeds are more important than words, and nothing speaks more eloquently than the finance minister’s recent and belated increase in the overall allocation of the programme to more than Rs 1 lakh crore."
She noted that in May 2020 alone, 2.19 crore households demanded work through the Act — the highest for the month in eight years.
The Modi government, Gandhi wrote, had "grudgingly come around to the significance of the programme."
"My plea to the government is, this is a time of national crisis, not a time to play politics. This is not a BJP versus Congress issue."
Gandhi concluded with an appeal to the Centre where she said that it has a powerful mechanism at hand and requested that it use it to help the people of India in their time of need.