3.5 million enrol for MGNREGS work amid migrant exodus

Some 3.5 million people applied for work under the federal programme during the period, compared to just 180,000 in the same duration last year, according to the MGNREGS website
Only about 1.5 million applications for new job cards were received during the entire financial year of 2019-20.(Bloomberg photo)
Only about 1.5 million applications for new job cards were received during the entire financial year of 2019-20.(Bloomberg photo)
Updated on May 23, 2020 03:39 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByChetan Chauhan

The number of enrolments for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) surged almost twentyfold in the period from April 1 to May 20, coinciding with an exodus of migrant workers from the big cities to homes in the hinterland following the Covid-19 lockdown, according to government data and officials in multiple states.

Some 3.5 million people applied for work under the federal programme during the period, compared to just 180,000 in the same duration last year, according to the MGNREGS website, but there may not be enough work to accommodate all the applicants.

Only about 1.5 million applications for new job cards were received during the entire financial year of 2019-20. The number of cumulative job applications as of May 20 was 43.3 million and only half of them have been provided work so far, according to the government data.

MGNREGS , under which at least one member of every rural household is guaranteed 100 days of manual work a year, acts as pointers to the state of the rural economy and the living conditions of the marginalised sections in the absence of any real-time data.

The surge has coincided with the exodus from cities of migrant workers left jobless by the lockdown imposed on March 25 to check the Covid-19 pandemic in late March. Tens of thousands of workers walked or cycled back to the countryside; Indian Railways has been running special Shramik trains transport them home beginning May 1.

The government has allocated an additional Rs 40,000 crore to MGNREGS amid the increase in demand for work under the programme.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, where a bulk of the migrant workers have returned to, have reported the maximum increase in demand for jobs. Officials in these states said the demand for the work has been highest since the scheme was launched in all districts in 2008.

Many states have directed district authorities to create additional work and get approvals for it within a fortnight in view of the surge. District authorities are expected to budget annually for MGNREGS on the basis of the applicants for new job cards in February and March.

Jharkhand’s special MGNREGS commissioner Sidharth Tripathy said the situation is different this year as the demand for work started growing in April once the migrants started returning home.

“Nobody had anticipated such a situation,” Tripathy said. He added that the administration had been engaging MGNREGS workers in pre-monsoon works such as maintaining of ponds or digging of wells. “We have also taken additional road construction work to employ MGNREGS workers...”

His Rajasthan counterpart, P C Kishan, said normally there is a slight increase--3 to 5%--in new job applications when the financial year starts in April. “This year, we have issued two lakh [200,000] new job cards since April 1, which is equal to those issued in entire 2019-2020 [financial year]. This is not normal.”

Bihar’s rural development department secretary Arvind Kumar Chaudhary said the government had employed MGNREGS workers for flood management works since the first week of May.

Officials in Odisha said they will employ migrant workers to deal with the damage Cyclone Amphan has caused in the state as well as for pre-monsoon and road construction works.

According to the MGNREGS website, Rajasthan has provided the maximum number of new jobs cards-- 210,000--over the first 45 days of this financial year. “We are focusing on the rural job guarantee scheme to provide financial security to rural populations in the current scenario. This has resulted in 24.31 lakh [over 2.4 million] labour engaged in MGNREGS,” said Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot.

Chhattisgarh, which has employed over 2.8 million people under the scheme, plans to increase the number of days of work if needed. “We are clear if people want, we would provide additional work under MGNREGS for workers in our state even if we have to pay from our own pocket,” said chief minister Bhupesh Baghel.

Baghel, who has asked the Centre to increase the employment days in a year from 100 to 150, said district administrators had been asked to ensure that migrants get work under MGNREGS.

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state that accounts for over half-a-million new job seekers, has asked districts officials to accommodate additional MGNREGS workers. “Providing work for all workers may not be possible. We would provide them employment in a staggered manner so that more families can be covered ...,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

The job guarantee scheme provided a fallback option for returning migrant workers. Ratnakar Yadu said he was working with a construction company in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur town, but when work stopped after the lockdown, he enrolled in MGNREGS at his village. “At least I am doing some work and earning some money,” he said.

Kashiram Ahirwar, 38, a resident of Madhya Pradesh’s Tikamgarh district, too, is hoping for work under the programme. “As no construction activity is going on and harvest season is also over here, my only hope is MGNREGS,” he said.

Balveer Ahirwar, 23, a resident of Ladwari in Tikamgarh, said his brother returned after losing his job due to the lockdown in Delhi after a week-long journey. “We have no money left and five quintal wheat from my father’s farm also did not fetch enough money. We have been pleading to the sarpanch [village head] to give us work. But he says that works have not been sanctioned...”

Jabbar Ahmad, 43, who returned to Bihar’s East Champaran from Surat, said he is looking for a job under the scheme. “I am a trained worker for a cotton factory but I am looking for a job under MGNREGS...”

East Champaran district magistrate Shirsat Kapil Ashok said many trained people, including some contractual teachers, were asking for work under MGNREGS.

Reetika Khera, a development economist at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, said the additional allocation for the scheme is a welcome decision but added that around Rs.15,000 crore will be used to clear pending dues from the last financial year. “The states need to create enough works to employ all those who have been enrolled. If needed, MGNREGS workers can be used for agriculture purpose as there is a shortage of farm labourers.”

Activist Nikhil Dey said the number of new job applications under MGNREGS since March are almost equal to those received in a year. “Apart from the migrants returning home, even locals are seeking jobs under MGNREGS because of lack of employment opportunities anywhere,” he said.

(With inputs from state bureaus)

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Sunday, December 05, 2021