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Migration From West Bengal Increases as MNREGS Jobs Shrink

Thousands of villagers have migrated to other states, particularly in the south, in the past eight-nine months.
Migration From West Bengal Increases as MNREGS Jobs Shrink

Image Courtesy: PTI

Kolkata: West Bengal has the dubious distinction of regular migration of rural residents to other states in search of livelihood. Migration from the state peaked during the pandemic.

Thousands of people from Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur, South Dinajpur Hooghly and Nadia migrated to other states, particularly in the south, in search of livelihood in the past eight-nine months following the shrinking scope for employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

“Migration has been an unavoidable option for men but women too have moved out in recent months in search for jobs to support their families,” says Sheikh Mohammed Sadi, president of CITU-affiliated West Bengal Migrant Workers Union in Nadia district. 

Settling down in other states is extremely difficult for migrants, who often face malnutrition, the lack of prompt medical attention and accidental death. Last week, 12 migrant workers, including five from West Bengal, were killed when a stone quarry caved in at Maudarh village, in Hnahthial district of Mizoram. According to Sadi, the workers from West Bengal had migrated a few months ago.

Citing non-compliance with rules, the Union rural development ministry had deputed teams of officials for an on-the-spot investigation into the quality of MGNREGS implementation in July. Finding evidence of serious anomalies and irregularities, the officials imposed fines of Rs 2 crore on Hooghly, Rs 1 crore on Purba Bardhaman, Rs 26 lakh on Malda and Rs 17 lakh on Darjeeling.

The officials found instances of progress reports sent by the state to the ministry claiming much more than what had been achieved on the ground, embezzlement and ghost projects. Besides, the names of some schemes had been surreptitiously changed—for example, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana was renamed as Bangla Gram Sadak Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Grameen) as Banglar Bari.

The ministry had already frozen the release of MGNREGS funds to the state in December 2021, causing a big problem for chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The withheld funds have added up to nearly Rs 7,000 crore.

With Panchayat elections scheduled for April-May and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) leadership preferring to advance the polls to February citing better weather, Banerjee devised a way to help MGNREGS cardholders by providing other jobs to about 29 lakh workers for only 18-20 days from August till October.

However, the plan didn’t work for the 1.5 crore job cardholders, who anyway are employed only for 40-45 days against the stipulated 100 days guaranteed under the scheme due to the freeze on funds.

The plight of rural workers has been highlighted by the agitations and protests of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, Paschim Banga Kshet Majoor Samity and Shranjivi Mahila Samity in the state and even in New Delhi.

A worker identified as Sanjay Sardar, of Bhula Bheda village, Jhargram district, died under unnatural circumstances on August 3, 2021. His wife Saraswati told the members of The Right to Food and Work Network that her family often had to skip meals. Sardar’s family, like most tribal families in the area, do not own any land and work on others’ land to earn a meagre Rs 150- Rs 250 daily for a maximum of 100 days a year. 

Due to the rapidly shrinking employment opportunities, villagers are migrating to other states, especially Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where they earn Rs 700-Rs 800 a day depending upon their skills, according to Abdul Mannan, general secretary, West Bengal Migrant Workers Union.

“These workers earn a maximum of Rs 250 per day but all is hunky-dory in these states, where the cost of living is higher. They somehow manage to survive and stay in unhygienic places,” says Mannan.

Recently, Banerjee asked her rural development minister Pradip Mazumder to plead with his Centre counterpart Giriraj Singh for unfreezing MGNREGS funds. Mazumder has already met Singh twice in recent weeks.

Nabanna also set in motion the toning up of the audit of MNREGA works by appointing a director following the Centre’s directive to recover the misappropriated funds.

The administration and the TMC brass expects New Delhi to release funds as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) can’t afford to be rigid keeping in view the Panchayat elections. Moreover, the BJP can’t afford to give an opportunity to Banerjee to misguide rural voters that the Centre’s funds squeeze is mainly responsible for their woes.  

The writer is a Kolkata-based senior freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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