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Struggling to Cope with Influx of Migrant Workers, MGNREGA is Bihar’s Only Way Out

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has sought to increase the number of work days under MGNREGA from 100 to 200; the move awaits the Centre’s sanction.
Struggling to Cope with Influx of Migrant

Representational Image.

Patna: Sensing the challenge of creating livelihoods for lakhs of returning migrant workers who have arrived in Bihar from other states, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is seeking to increase the number of work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) from 100 to 200. With people still on the move owing to the fourth phase of the lockdown, the decision also depends on approval from the Centre with MGNREGA being a central government sponsored scheme.

However, the already existing implementation of MGNREGA in Bihar is poor, despite the CM’s request for more work days. As per official data, the average number of days of employment that MGNREGA provided for those in the state, including those who worked even for a day, was 41.94 days in 2019-20. During the financial year between 2018-19, the average number of days of employment provided was 42.19. The number in question was 36.36 days in 2017-18 and 37.37 days in 2016-17.

Only 20,000 households got 100 days of work courtesy the scheme out of 33.87 lakhs who had worked under it over the past year. About 24,573 out of 29.24 lakh households got 100 days of work during 2018-19, 15,556 out of 22,47 lakh in 2017-18 and the corresponding figure for 2016-17 was 14,165 of 22.86 lakh households.

“Going by these official records, the number of work-days is 7.8 per registered household. It is much lower than that of many other states despite the fact that the poverty rate is high in rural Bihar,” said Ashish Ranjan, an activist working for the rights of MGNREGA workers in the state.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government a day after CM Nitish Kumar made the request. Kumar directed the state’s chief secretary Deepak Kumar to send a letter to the Centre, which is controlled by his alliance partner in the state.

MGNREGA appears to be the primary hope of sustaining livelihood in Bihar during a time of massive reverse migration due to the lockdown imposed in light of COVID-19. Opportunities in other sectors like industry and other development projects are limited in the state.

Activist Ajay Sahni said that it was “unfortunate” that workers get between 30 to 35 days of work on an average in the state instead of 100 days.

According to officials of Bihar’s Rural Development Department, the state government has sent a proposal to the Centre, requesting it to increase man days (sharamik karya diwas) from 18 crore to 24 crore this year, to provide livelihood to poor people, mostly migrant workers, in rural Bihar. “If the centre approved to Increase man days to 24 crore, thousands of labourers will get work every day in the state,” said Sahni

He said the state has witnessed an increase in the number of people who have registered themselves as labourers under MGNREGA during the lockdown. In March, more than 2.25 lakh labourers have registered to work under MGNREGA. When the first day of work under MGNREGA began this year on April 16, there about 2.77 lakh new registrations, including 1.25 lakh migrant workers.

A month later, by May 15, the number of people who had registered under MGNREGA rose to 11.14 lakh, a number which included nearly 4 lakh migrant workers. “This number is likely to go up in the coming days because thousands of migrant workers who were rendered jobless during the lockdown are returning to their villages across Bihar. Most of them will have no other opportunity of making a living locally other than working under MGNREGA,” said Sahni.

Arvind Kumar Choudhary, Principal Secretary of the Rural Development Department in Bihar, said the government has decided to generate more employment opportunities. “We are working on it. The department is also planning on sanctioning 12.32 lakh new housing units under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and will set the target for completing construction by the end of 2020-21,” he added.

Choudhary said that the migrant workers will be engaged through MGNREGA in rural areas to secure their livelihood.

Another official of the department said that as soon as the lockdown began on March 24, Bihar and other states were forced to shut down the rural job guarantee scheme under pressure from the Centre. “The decision to suspend works under MGNREGA hit job card holders and others who were in distress after the lockdown,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

Professor Pushpendra Kumar Singh, Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Development Practice and Research at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Patna, said that MGNREGA can be more effective in providing livelihood to distressed people than the much-hyped Jan Dhan Yojana. MGNREGA is productive and it is work with dignity for labourers. “We support the move to enhance the number work days from 100 to 200 under MGNREGA,” he added.

Prof. Singh strongly stressed on the need to ensure wages to labourers working under MGNREGA. “Labourers should be given their wages in cash on the spot instead of in their bank accounts because they require timely money to survive,” he explained.

Bihar’s Rural Development Minister Shrawan Kumar admitted that demand for work under MGNREGA had increased manifold in the state during the lockdown. “More than 2.33 lakh job cards were made during the lockdown and more will be made in the coming days to create more opportunities for distressed people,” he said. Kumar said the Centre should consider CM Nitish Kumar’s request to increase the number of work days under MGNREGA.

Shoaib Akhtar, the panchayat rozgar sewak of Siriawan, which falls under Mohanpur block in the drought-prone Gaya district, said MGNREGA was a source of hope for the poorest of the poor, mostly landless farm labourers and migrant workers, who had returned home. “We are providing work to job card holders under MGNREGA; the work is underway at full speed in my panchayat,” he added, reiterating the importance of MGNREGA for livelihood in the area.

Singh said that he expected between 10 lakh to 17 lakh migrant workers to return to Bihar by the end of the fourth phase of the period on May 31. “It is not easy to calculate the exact number, but we have estimated a rough figure because there is lack of data about migrant workers,” he added. He pointed out that as per the 2011 Census, Bihar’s migrant population was 29 million.

Interestingly, the state government has no official data of how many workers from Bihar are employed outside the state.

As of May 19, more than six lakh migrant workers had arrived in nearly 370 special trains and 800 buses to Bihar from other states. More migrant workers are likely to reach Bihar in over 500 more special trains and buses in the coming days.

Officials said Bihar expected an influx of between 8 lakh to 10 lakh migrant workers by May 27. “About 50 to 60 special trains will reach Bihar on a daily basis in the coming days,” said an official.

However, last Friday, the state government received information from over 8,000 panchayats from across the state that about 20 lakh migrant workers from other states were likely to reach Bihar after May 14. This figure was based on a list collected from each panchayat by elected village body representatives.

Meanwhile, state Health Department officials continued to blame the return of migrant workers in large numbers for contributing to a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the state.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Bihar had 1495 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with nine deaths.

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