Lucknow: Shubham Koiri (34), a migrant worker of Azamgarh district, recently returned to Noida along with his friends in search of work after nearly three months of lockdown due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to him, workers like him are unable to stay in the villages due to poor wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA).
Shubham and his friends Naveen and Deepak said that the lack of income in the last four months had taken a toll on their family and due to back-to-back lockdowns, they are struggling for their survival these days.
"Low wages, hazardous work conditions and hollow promises made by the government have left migrant workers disillusioned. In spite of working hard on government projects, wages are not paid on time. As per provision, a worker should expect to get paid within 15 days after the closure of a muster of work but this guideline is not being followed in the blocks,” Shubham told NewsClick.
“On the other hand, for working the same hours, private companies or construction companies are paying much higher compared to MGNREGA. Why would anyone invest energy for lesser money. Though we did not want to leave our village after the second wave of corona created havoc but somehow we gathered courage to say goodbye to our loved ones as no option is left other than reverse migration," he added.
The rural employment act mandates that workers be paid within 15 days of completion of work. However, wage payments often don’t reach the worker’s account due to technical reasons, according to the workers.
Uttar Pradesh MGNREGA Karmchari Mahasangh has alleged that in many districts the workers are yet to get their wages even after a month of working in different blocks of the district. The union said according to the MGNREGA website, around 5,389 job card holders have left work in a day in Hardoi district on July 12. If this situation continues, then the situation will get worse in the coming days. With another round of reverse migration starting weeks after the second wave of the pandemic, the organisation requested the state government to increase the number of work days above 100 under the programme.
Also read: COVID-19 in UP: No Food, No Money, No MGNREGA Work, Second Wave Forcing Migrant Workers to Die by Suicide
On a call given by the union, workers across the state held a protest on Tuesday, July 13, demanding "equal pay for equal work" and against "irregularities" in work. They said that the government is not paying heed to their demands which is sheer injustice and warned that if the government does not consider their demands, there will be massive agitation.
Arvind Shukla, leader of the union, said, "For development in rural areas, works like digging a pond or a canal drain or construction of roads/toilets or plantation, etc., are done under MGNREGA scheme but full work assigned usually doesn’t happen. For instance, the stipulated wage for a worker per day is Rs 203 in Uttar Pradesh, and the worker finishes only half the work assigned for that day. Then the worker earns half the wage or Rs 101.5 per day. That too wages are paid after about a month of working. After all this, the labourers run pillar to post for several days to get their money in bank."
Another group of migrant workers from Balrampur district told NewsClick that they are planning to go to Pune, Maharashtra, in search of jobs but no tickets are available for trains to Pune as most of them are fully booked for the next few weeks.
On being asked about the reason for reverse migration, one of them said. "The workers engaged in private work are getting daily wages ranging from Rs 350 to Rs 450 and get the amount immediately after work. While, for the same work, a worker receives Rs 203 under MGNREGA that too after 15 days of struggle. Due to not getting wages on time and getting more money in private works, workers are moving from villages to cities.”
Also read: COVID-19 Driving Up Unemployment
According to the MGNREGA portal, 1.10 lakh workers are registered under MGNREGA in Balrampur district. Out of which only 30,000 labourers are working. The remaining 80,000 workers have either gone to another state for their livelihood or have adopted self-employment.
Commenting over the reverse migration of workers, Brij Bihari, general secretary of the Mazdoor Kisan Manch, who has been extensively working with MGNREGA workers and fighting for their rights in Sitapur and adjoining districts, said, "The reverse migration of migrant workers is very less where organisations are working collectively. MGNREGA movement is very weak, hence migration is more in Uttar Pradesh as compared to other states. The two basic reasons behind migration --- payment is never on time, so workers do not stick for a long time in any project, second, the wages are very less than what they get in cities."
He added that a major chunk of people of the workers going towards cities for jobs are MGNREGA cardholders and landless farmers. "Since there is no work in agriculture in rural areas after paddy cultivation is over and machines have replaced the labourers for other work on the field, the workers are turning to migration. If wages increase under MGNREGA, and employment is guaranteed, then this migration will stop," he explained.
Another activist said that this time migrant workers are migrating with their family members due to the fear of COVID-19. "In many villages, migrant workers are going to the metro cities along with their family members fearing hunger and another lockdown. Their struggle for survival continues. It was bad during last year’s first lockdown. It became worse during after the second lockdown. If a third lockdown happens, it will probably ring their death knell, as many who lost their jobs are yet to find work."
Also read: Alone Again: Migrant Workers Fight for Survival