"We are writing to express our deep concern about the future of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for NREGA," the letter said. (Read the full text of the letter)
"It is alarming to hear of multiple moves (some of them going back to the preceding government) to dilute or restrict the provisions of the Act. Wages have been frozen in real terms, and long delays in wage payments have further reduced their real value," the economists wrote.
The jobs scheme was introduced in 2005 with cross-party support. Arguing that its benefits outweigh its shortcomings, the economists said about 50 million households are getting jobs each year at a relatively small cost, and there have been "wide-ranging social benefits".
They said it was worrying that the central government appeared to be considering changing the law to confine the jobs guarantee scheme to the 200 poorest districts of the country.
"The message seems to be that the new government is not committed to the NREGA and hopes to restrict it as much as possible," the economists wrote, urging PM Modi to ensure that the programme receives all the support it needs to survive and thrive.
The signatories to the letter include Dilip Abreau of Princeton, Pranab Bardhan of Berkeley, development economist Jean Dreze, Maitreesh Ghatak of London School of Economics, Ritika Khera of IIT Delhi and Anirban Kar of the Delhi School of Economics.
Jean Dreze, who participated in policy-making when the UPA was in power, said the letter reflected the concerns of a wide spectrum of economists without any political bias. "There have been a series of dilutions of the Act even before this government came to power...the freezing of wages, the withdrawal of right to compensation, bringing back machines, proposal to restrict the scheme. The letter shows our concern," Dr Dreze told NDTV.