Drought: SC Raps Centre for Delay in Releasing MGNREGA Funds

New Delhi
Drought: SC Raps Centre for Delay in Releasing MGNREGA Funds
File-Jitender Gupta
Drought: SC Raps Centre for Delay in Releasing MGNREGA Funds

Supreme Court today castigated the government for delay in releasing funds for MGNREGA to drought-hit states saying this was "totally unacceptable", as it also questioned its role in declaring drought in states.

"The money should be released in advance so that the (MGNREGA) work does not get hampered. Nobody is here to criticise the government. The only point being made is delay in payments, which is undeniable and totally unacceptable," a bench headed by Justice M B Lokur said.

The apex court directed the Centre to submit a detailed chart of 10 drought-hit states and specify the number of people and districts including villages affected by it.

It also asked the Centre to provide details with regard to notification on declaration of drought and sought budgetary allocations of National Disaster Response Force and State Disaster Response Fund.

Initiating arguments on behalf of Centre, Additional Solicitor General P S Narsimha said the power to declare drought was completely vested with the states and the Centre has no role other than providing funds and placing a monitoring system.

"If there is a situation, the statute speaks who will decide or take a call. All powers are vested in the state. Centre has only advisory role. The Ministry of Agriculture can only issue guidelines and broad parameters to be followed.

"The power to declare drought is completely vested with the states. Centre has no role other than providing funds if required and placing a monitoring system. Once drought is declared, incidental steps like providing money and relief work follow. Your lordship can very well pass an order if it feels a state should have declared drought," he said.

The bench then asked, "in case the drought situation in a state is very poor and the facts are stark, you are saying that the SC can pass an order. So what is the Centre supposed to do if there is a grave problem and the affected state is not declaring?"

The ASG replied that in a federal structure where there is a democratically-elected government in power, declaration of drought fell completely under states' responsibility and maximum contemplation for the Centre which the Constitution lays down is guidelines and advisory.

The bench, also comprising Justice N V Ramana, further said, "so it is between the state goverment and the courts. Centre has nothing to do with it?"

ASG said that under the statute, it is the sovereign power of the state and if there is a drought situation, the statute speaks who will decide or take a call. 

During the hearing, the ASG said the government was looking at revising the crop compensation paid to farmers for the coming year and has constituted a committee on it.

Opposing the appointment of an independent commissioner to look after implementation of guidelines on drought, the ASG said there was already a statutory regime in place.

"What will a court commissioner do? If any right is violated, the individual may approach the court. There are many Prashant Bhushans in this country.

"There is some authority to ensure compliance at every stage. We can put the burden on officers. We can't make the statute redundant. Why create a parallel institution and law enforcing agency. We are bound to comply with all the directions passed by this court," the ASG said.

To this, the bench said "at least the commissioner can bring it to our notice. You can't expect persons affected by drought to come to us and tell that we have not been paid. Why can't you yourself appoint observers who can inform you."

The ASG said "if that process were to be followed then every statute will need a commissioner. My lords can issue a mandamus."

An irked bench then shot back, "when we pass directions, you say we are encroaching. We say something, you have a problem. You are assuming that we are here to ensure every right given by the Constitution. Will you release MGNREGA funds if we ask you to do it tomorrow?"

The ASG told the court that the entire government was working on the issue and to say the Centre was not doing anything is not correct.

Seeking the appointment of court commissioner, advocate Prashant Bhushan appearing for petitioner NGO Swaraj Abhiyan said a large section of population is affected by drought and an independent commissioner should be appointed to look after the implementation of guidelines.

The hearing remained inconclusive and would continue on April 19.

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