The sudden and total lockdown to tackle the spread of COVID-19 pandemic beginning March 24 was meant for 21 days initially, but was extended until May 17, 2020. It had a devastating impact on the labour market, particularly on workers who lack permanent jobs or social security and are entirely depend on daily-wage earnings for their survival.
As in most of the other states in India, Bihar too recorded an increase in unemployment rates and in April 2020, it was at 46.6% (higher than the national average). The state, which was already the worst-ranked in workforce participation rates (WPRs) for women, even before the pandemic, has witnessed the largest reverse migration in the country and between 25 and 30 lakh migrant workers have returned to Bihar.
Given the situation, the only feasible livelihood opportunities for the returning migrants and the marginalised local population was the The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Designed as a demand driven-programme, MGNREGA is India’s largest public works programme with 100 days of guaranteed employment in a financial year. However, was the rate of implementation of the MGNREGA sufficient to deal with the economic crisis in one of the poorest states in India? How does Bihar’s performance compare with that of other states during the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic period? Given that most of the returned migrant workers are still struggling for survival with no source of income or livelihood, it is worth exploring how many of those who seek employment have got work, how many are women and whether the scale of work matches demand.
It is disheartening to note that even before the pandemic, the number of person-days created under MGNREGA in Bihar was significantly lower than the norm of 100 days per household. The number of households that completed 100 days of employment in Bihar was only 20,445 in 2019-20, with the state ranking fifth from bottom (see Figure 1). The national average for days of employment provided per household was 48 days while the figure in Bihar was 42 days; the state constituted only 5.4% of the total person-days created in the country in 2019-20.
Figure 1: Employment Gap under MGNREGA during the pre-COVID-19 period (2019-20)
There is a wide interstate variation in the employment generating capacities of MGNREGA, and among the 18 major states, states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh performed poorly as compared to other major states in 2019-20. In all of these states more than five lakh households did not receive employment under MGNREGA, despite demand in 2019-20. Moreover, in 11 major states (out of these 18), the legal daily minimum wages for unskilled workers were much higher than the wage rate under MGNREGA and the average wage rate under the MGNREGA was between 50% and 75% of the legally prescribed minimum wage for unskilled workers.
During the current financial year, 114.2 lakh households got new job cards in the country and among the major states, the number of households that received new job cards was higher in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Out of the total new job cards issued this year, 29% and 12% are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively. In Bihar, 38 lakh households are employed in 2020-21, the highest in the last three years.
About 13.6 crore person days have been generated in Bihar in the first seven months as compared to 14 crore person-days for the whole financial year (2019-20). However, only 6,187 families have completed 100 days of work in the state. In contrast, more than one lakh households completed 100 days of employment in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Odisha during the lockdown and post-lockdown period. Table 1 shows that in Bihar, 17% of households did not get employment under MGNREGA despite demanding for it, up to October 2020. Furthermore, on an average, 35 days of work per household has been provided in Bihar this year (up to October 2020).
Table 1: Status of Employment in Bihar during the Pandemic and beyond (from 1st April, 2020)
Source: MGNREGA MIS as on 31-10-2020
In response to the migrant worker crisis, the Prime Minister of India launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) on June 20 in 116 districts for 125 days to employ returning migrants and other rural residents. Out of these 116 districts, 32 high out-migration districts (including 12 aspirational districts) were identified for implementation of GKRA in Bihar. However, there was no observable difference in creating employment opportunities under MGNREGA between GKRA districts and non-GKRA districts in Bihar.
In all the aspirational GKRA districts, more than 3/4th of the households has less than 50 days of employment in Bihar. Moreover, according to the MGNREGA guidelines, there should be a limit on material-intensive work, and wage to material ratio should always be maintained at 60:40. With unemployment at a high and unmet demand at 20%, it is worrying to note that there has been an increase in material-intensive work in Bihar during 2020-21.
While MGNREGA has always been vital, it has assumed renewed significance in light of the unemployment crisis brought about by the lockdown. Since the impact of the pandemic is never gender-neutral, it is of utmost importance that the government boosts women’s employment under the programme. But, in India, as also in Bihar, there has been a decline in the proportion of women employed under MGNREGA over the period 2019-20 and 2020-21; the decline is higher in Bihar compared to the national average. In contrast, in Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, the proportion of women employed under MGNREGA has increased over the same period.
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already acknowledged the crucial role that the employment guarantee scheme can play in reviving the rural economy, having announced that the Centre will allocate an additional Rs 40,000 crore for the scheme along with the original allocation of Rs 61,500 crore in the current financial year. But the original budgetary allocation was exhausted in less than half the year and the COVID-19 relief package for MGNREGA is yet to be released. As of September 9, 2020, Rs 64,000 crores have been spent and as a result, the GoI has total pending liabilities. Moreover, some states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka and Haryana have much higher pending liabilities.
Given the backdrop, it will not be an exaggeration to say that the implementation of MGNREGA has suffered due to an inadequate allocation of resources. It was reflected in lower than legal minimum wages, a lower level of days of employment creation and left out a sizeable number of households from receiving gainful employment.
Given the depth and nature of the present employment and livelihood crisis, there is no doubt that demand for employment under MGNREGA is going to increase this year and in the coming year. So, expanding the number of days of employment to 200 days with a legal minimum wage rate to every household that demand work-should be the target of the Bihar government. It is also extremely crucial that the Centre acknowledges the seriousness of the crisis and takes corrective measures to revive the economy by releasing the promised special relief package as soon as possible and increasing the actual allocation for MGNREGA at the earliest.
The writer is 'Researcher, affiliated with Institute of Social Studies Trust situated in Delhi. The views are personal.