As Covid second wave persists, MGNREGS comes to rural India’s rescue, yet again

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has witnessed the sharpest year-on-year increase in employment generation in its history in April 2021, govt data shows, in a sign that the second Covid wave has caused major reverse migration adding to rural economic distress
Representational Image. (File photo) PREMIUM
Representational Image. (File photo)
Updated on May 15, 2021 08:06 PM IST
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By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has witnessed the sharpest year-on-year increase in employment generation in its history in April 2021, government data shows, in a sign that the second Covid wave has caused major reverse migration adding to rural economic distress.

According to rural development ministry data, around 22 million households have got work under the job guarantee in the month of April 2021, which is almost double the number of homes getting work in April 2020.

To be sure, NREGS was suspended in several states in the first fortnight of April 2020 due to a national lockdown. But even if one compares data from mid-April 2020 (when NREGS resumed in full swing across India) to May 12 last year with data for the corresponding period this year, the surge in demand indicates that economic distress in rural areas has returned, with close to 80% of India closed due to lockdowns imposed by state governments as Covid cases surged in second part of April and first week of May.

The job guarantee law provides for minimum 100 days of work in a year but not more than 10% of the households enrolled get that amount of work. The average is 40 to 50 days in a year. The Centre is 2020-21 provided 115,000 crore for the scheme.

The pandemic and jobs

Some studies on efficacy of MGNREGS during pandemic in the past one year have shown that the world’s biggest job guarantee scheme has provided an economic cushion of up to 22,000 to every poor households able to get up to 100 days of work.

Unlike the pre-pandemic period, the rural development ministry’s data showed that employment under NREGS remained high throughout 2020-21 financial year, even though the peak was close to 35 million households getting work in May and June of 2020. On average, the ministry data showed, 22 million households every month got work from July 2020 to March 2021.

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In pre-pandemic era, the highest employment generated under the scheme used to be in months of April to June and lowest during the rainy season (July to September). The monthly average for April-June in financial year 2018-19 was 22 million households, and during rainy season, it came down to 14 million households per month. The only exception was during drought when the states increased employment from 100 to 150 days.

The ministry’s data also shows that 18.1 million new households got job cards during the pandemic hinting that some of the people, who had returned from cities to villages during the first Covid wave, never returned to urban areas. Most of the new jobs cards were issued in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Rajasthan, states having high work related migratory population.

“The data clearly shows that many people in rural India continued to suffer from the pandemic trauma even months after the first wave subsided and work re-started in cities. They were not willing to go back and joined NREGS,” said MS Raunaq, who works with the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), a group of activists and academics working to monitor implement of NREGS since 2004, when the law was approved.

Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan said all data and studies have shown that NREGS proved to be the lifeline for the poor and deprived during pandemic. “On an average, a family got 22,000 a year which was a big cushion in absence of any other employment avenue,” he said.

Over 70 million households got work under the scheme in 2020-21 financial year and 72,000 households got 100 days of work, ministry’s data shows.

Across states, a spike in demand

Unlike the 2020 lockdown, when even industries were closed, the 2021 version has factories functioning. Despite that, a large number of workers from cities have returned, a reason for the spurt in NREGS employment.

“The only plausible reason for spurt in NREGS work demand in April-May period, which is also a harvest season in most parts of India, is return of workers from cities,” said Nikhil Dey.

Reetika Khera, a development economist with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, said this period sees reverse migration because many return to harvest their crops and then go back to cities for work by June-end after sowing the next crop. Because of lockdown in Maharashtra and a spurt in Covid cases in Gujarat, a large number of workers from there returned in the last week of March and April first week and that trend is getting reflected to some extent in the data, experts say. Unlike 2020, the states don’t have any data on the migrants who have returned.

The rural development ministry’s data shows that there is 10% more demand for work this year as compared to last year, which witnessed highest ever work demand in 15-year of MGNREGA that was implemented in 2005.

In Uttar Pradesh, a northern state seeing an increase in work demand, officials said, the spike was on the expected lines. The number of households that demanded work in April 2021 was 1,092,470, of which work was provided to 675,118 households. In May, 275,084 households have demanded work. “If there an unexpected surge, we would allocate more work to NREGS workers,” said a rural development department official.

NREGS report card.
NREGS report card.

In another high migrant worker flow state, Bihar, there is a 100% increase in NGREGS work demand in April 2021 as compared to April 2020. “In April this year, about 23.7 million mandays were created as compared to 12.2 million mandays in the same period last year,” said CP Khanduja, director-cum-commissioner, NREGS. Bihar’s labour resources minister Jibesh Kumar added that the government was committed to provide jobs to all skilled and unskilled workers in the state. “Steps have been initiated in this regard,” he added.

In Madhya Pradesh, which saw a large number of workers returning from Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in March-April this year, there is a 15% increase in NREGS work demand. Panchayat and rural development principal secretary, Umakant Umrao, said, “Active NREGS workers in MP are at an all-time high. Most of the active workers belong to districts where a large number of people migrate to other states.” He added that most of them are being engaged in community work.

Safety valve, but unfinished projects

There is also a flip side to the NREGS story in the pandemic. According to the ministry data, only 19.49% of the works taken up in 2020-21 financial year could be completed, which is the lowest work completion rate in the last decade of the scheme.

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The rate fell from 96.89% in 2018-19 to 65.32% in 2019-20 to less than 20% in last fiscal, which officials said shows poor monitoring at the state level for works undertaken. The work completion rate was 6% in UP, 9% in Assam and 11% in Odisha. Rajasthan had highest rate of 74%.

“Many states have promised to improve the work completion rate this year,” a ministry official said, adding that in the pandemic, providing succour to the poor through work was a priority.

Dey said some states had to stop works in between as the workers enrolled under NREGS returned to cities when the situation improved in months of October-November. “Also, there was delay at panchayat level in providing work completion certificate,” he added.

Is there a fund crunch?

An official of West Bengal government, requesting anonymity, said the Centre’s decision to cut the allocation for NREGS by 30% in the budget for 2021 as compared to money provided in 2020-21 fiscal year shows the government’s intention of reducing employment under the scheme. “We are facing problem in paying wages of NREGA workers regularly. Efforts are on to pay wages for April month from our own resources as Centre is yet to release advance funds,” he said.

However, the rural development ministry officials said money will not be a constraint as NREGS is a demand driven scheme, to which the Centre is committed to provide funds for the work generated. The ministry has already increased the budget of person days of work from 335.7 million days for April to 799.4 million days for May, an increase of 140%. In May, 2020, the ministry had provided for 676.3 million days.

(With inputs from bureau in Patna, Lucknow and Bhopal)

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    Chetan Chauhan heads regional editions as Deputy National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over 20 years, he has written extensively on social sector with special focus on environment and political economy.

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