Now that thousands of migrant workers are returning home via state facilitated buses and trains, it would be difficult for them to sustain without any jobs or work to do. One of the solutions to this problem is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which provides guaranteed employment opportunities to the rural poor. This flagship government program would help the many native and migrant workers who are dependent on NREGA in coping with the immediate stress. The person/ household, rendered destitute, needs a short-term unemployment benefit which will tide them over till the principal earner gets a job again. The government had announced in the lockdown 2.0 guidelines that NREGA would continue on and workers working under the scheme would be guaranteed minimum wages. The scheme also stipulates that if workers register for work, but are not provided employment, they are eligible for an unemployment allowance amounting to a quarter of their wages in the first month, half in the second, and full wages thereafter.
The Jharkhand government had said that it would bring in new guidelines to widen the scope of work under the MGNREGA to provide jobs to migrant workers returning homes. Chief Minister Hemant Soren has observed that approximately five lakh labourers are held up in different parts of the country due to the nationwide shutdown and ensuring livelihood to them at home will be a tough challenge. The government is preparing a new guideline for MGNREGA to generate work so that labourers can get work in their villages. These new guidelines are expected to help the migrant workers returning to the State. The CM, Hemant Soren said that “the state government will make efforts to provide work to labourers and it is preparing karya yojana (work schemes) and the government is preparing a new guideline for MGNREGA to generate work so that labourers can get work in their villages”
In a major move to provide immediate relief to the state’s rural workforce, including those who have returned from other states after a lockdown was imposed owing to the rising cases of coronavirus, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has delivered employment at the doorstep of more than five lakh people under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme. The MGNREGA per day wages have been increased to Rs 194 from Rs 171 by the government, paid to over 5.14 lakh workers. The number of employed workers in Bihar is expected to go up in days to come, as migrant workers, who have returned from other states, would be offered NREGA after they complete the mandatory quarantine period. Meanwhile, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has also asked the rural development department to provide jobs to those who don’t have NREGA job cards. The job cards would be created for anyone willing to work under MGNREGA for immediate employment
The West Bengal government has resumed work under MGNREGA to support the native rural population, especially the returned workers by providing them employment as long as social distancing norms are being followed. The workers will have to wear masks and maintain hygiene. The government has asked all the district superintendents and District Magistrates to resume work and is allowing new applications under the scheme. According to the Ministry of Rural Development, there are 1.25 crore job card holders, out of which 81 lakh are active in Bengal as of April 17. But the return of migrant workers from other states has amplified the demand for employment under the scheme. The government has said that the panchayats have been given the power to give employment and anyone who is the resident of the state and eligible under the Act would be allowed to have a job.
In such extraordinary circumstances, the number of days of work per rural household should not be limited to 100 days per year. Categories of permissible work should also be expanded to include specific individual benefit schemes and construction of community assets. The war against COVID-19 cannot be won without having adequate preparations to safeguard the most marginalised of the country. We may be able to keep the virus away by enforcing a forced lockdown, but will we want to do it at the cost of people starving to death?
It is suggested that the scheme, which has a ₹61,500 crore budget this year, be expanded and leveraged as a way to provide basic rural livelihoods which have been destroyed at a single stroke by the COVID-19 crisis. “There is already a provision to extend the number of guaranteed days of work from 100 to 150 at a time of drought or national calamity. This year, that should be extended to 200 days of work once the lockdown is lifted”. MGNREGA workers could be used to deliver rations, provide labour at agricultural markets and help restore disrupted supply chains in rural areas.
The biggest challenge before every State government is to provide jobs to the returning and native labourers, part of this challenge can be resolved by expanding the reach of the NREGA scheme so that people can be suitably employed. The population also needs to be divided between skilled and semi-skilled labourers. In many states, the full wage amount under MNREGA for the lockdown period is not being paid. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the government pays full notified minimum wage for each day of the lockdown. The government also needs to increase the budget for MNREGA and provide financial aid so that state governments are able to provide wages under the scheme and the migrant worker is able to benefit from the scheme.