NEW DELHI: The Narendra Modi government is setting out to achieve in the next two years what the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme could just about accomplish in the last 10.

The rural development ministry is confident of adding 1 million farm ponds and wells and another million vermi composting farms under the programme. That’s almost as much as the total such assets the scheme — put in place by the UPA government-—managed to create in the past decade. The government will be sharpening focus on rural sector schemes in the upcoming budget in a big way.

The rural development ministry has utilised more than 90% of the Rs 75,000 crore it was allocated. It is expecting double this year due to expansion of development schemes, including the rural jobs programme.

“NREGS has a crucial role to play now since we are converging it with all our other schemes. Having utilised most of our funds, we need to continue to create more assets and multiple opportunities for livelihood for the rural poor,” a senior rural development ministry official said.

This marks a change of heart. Modi had previously criticised the scheme as an example of six decades of failure by the Congress, which headed the UPA. “It has to pay people to dig ditches,” he had said. The government has similarly adopted the UPA’s Aadhaar programme, making it a key element of its welfare schemes.

Creation of farm ponds and dug wells is part of the government plan to make NREGS a green scheme, with greater thrust on agriculture and irrigation-related activities. Making the rural jobs programme outcome-oriented is a major part of its revamp. The government wants to achieve breakthroughs in assured irrigation for rain-fed areas and improve ground water recharge. “In tribal belts, poor households hold land. The only way to improve their condition is with sustainable agricultural support,” the official said.

The rural development and agriculture ministries have coordinated, along with state agricultural departments, to use NREGS to boost multitier cropping and generate livelihood through farming. The animal husbandry department is collaborating on NREGS for construction of poultry and goat sheds in villages.

As of January 20, more than 22% of total NREGS work was drought-related, including water conservation, harvesting, renovation of traditional water bodies, drought proofing and micro-irrigation works. Demand has surpassed that in the last five years mainly due to poor monsoons. In January, NREGS demand exceeded 178 lakh households, compared with 94 lakh in the year earlier.

The government said delayed payments have been slashed by 72% and it wants to bring down the level to single digits by June. In FY15, only 28% of payments could be made on time. The rural development ministry is also trying to align the employment guarantee scheme with flagship government programmes.