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Beed and left-out migrants

The visible levels of implementation obstacles, lack of accountability and transparency in payments by CSCs are well known.

Mugdha Kinjawadekar and Anoushka Roy | New Delhi |


On 20 June, the Prime Minister launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (PM-GKRA), to provide an opportunity of livelihood to migrant workers who returned to their hometowns during the Covid-19 lockdown. The scheme, somewhat similar to the existing Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), provides 125 days of employment in various public works like laying pipelines, building roads, community toilets, anganwadis, housing for the rural poor and other such rural infrastructure.

All of these works are ongoing projects under twelve different ministries/ departments, but will now recruit the returnee migrant worker in a certain work ‘according to his skill’, so that he can work ‘while staying in his own village, while staying with his family’. The Prime Minister announced a package of Rs. 50,000 crore for this scheme, which he said will be launched in 116 districts across Bihar (32), Rajasthan (22), Madhya Pradesh (24), Uttar Pradesh (31), Jharkhand (3) and Odisha (4).

The districts were chosen on the basis of having more than 25,000 returnee workers since the Covid-19 lockdown. According to the PMO, these districts cover sixty-six per cent of such workers. It is unclear whether the scheme would be introduced in other districts of these states, and in the remaining twenty-three states at all. While the PM’s vision to simultaneously achieve employment and rural development is seemingly well-intentioned, the authors wonder about the fate of returnee workers in rural districts of states that have been left out.

We make the case for Beed, located in the ‘highperforming’ state of Maharashtra. Beed, like other Marathwada districts, is characterized by a constant water crisis; a severe drought strikes once every few years making agriculture unfeasible especially for those who do not own large farmlands. Beed also has a higher rate of farmer suicides compared to the rest of the state (there have already been 96 reported farmer suicides in the first six months of 2020). Almost a third of the population migrates to the ‘sugar belt’ districts in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh during the sugarcane harvest period, to work as cane cutters.

A ‘contractor’, called a mukkadam, hired by the sugar factory, works as a middleman in sourcing labour for cane cutting. This contractor hires one couple as one unit, paying them Rs 250 per tonne on average. In one season, the couple are expected to cut 300-400 tonnes of sugarcane, earning around Rs. 80,000 for six months of daily labour. This seasonal employment from October to March is often the only annual income for these cane-cutters. Villages in Beed also record a high number of wombless women who undergo hysterectomies to avoid a menstrual cycle from setting them back during these six months, as the contractor cuts their pay if they take a break during work.

Poverty, water scarcity, exploitation at the hands of the contractors and an alarming rate of farmer suicides has been a reality in Beed for a while now. The Covid-19 pandemic has only made things worse. This district has seen the return of over 2.5 lakh migrant workers in the last few months, according to a report in Indian Express of 23 June, the highest in Maharashtra and significantly higher than the criteria set for the GKRA. The lockdown started at the end of March, which already marks the end of the seasonal employment that people from Beed receive in sugarcane cutting.

In addition to the return of these seasonal migrants are the ones who left in the past few years for cities like Mumbai, Pune and Aurangabad in search of higher wages and a more permanent job. Both kinds of returning migrants now face a crippling lack of employment opportunities in their home district. Consequently, the demand for MGNREGA works is the highest it has been in the last decade. In fact, an analysis by Down to Earth shows that Maharashtra witnessed a 75 per cent spike in demand for MGNREGA within the span of a month – from April to May 2020. The government ought to tread cautiously here, for this rise in demand in turn can have a dual effect.

First, on the rural agrarian and female labourers, including the sugarcane workers, for whom MGNREGA was launched in the first place. In the summer months, agricultural jobs dry up and this form of employment proves essential for them. If the rise in demand is not met with an adequate rise in funds and MGNREGA opportunities, they might lose out to the younger and physically stronger workers who have returned from the city. The second effect is on migrants returning due to the lockdown who are semi-skilled or skilled workers, and for whom the works offered by MGNREGA are inferior both in terms of skill set and pay grade.

Therefore, shifting the burden of the increased demand for employment onto MGNREGA could become a lose-lose situation for both the residents and the returning migrant workers of Beed. This is why the GKRA is more likely to be a better fit for them, as the new scheme incorporates the skills of these workers while assigning them to a specific job. An excess in demand for employment faced with an incredibly low supply of work makes the authors wonder why a district like Beed was left out of the PM’s new employment scheme.

Although the six states selected for the launch of GKRA are Empowered-Action-Group states that have traditionally been low-performing, if the qualifying criteria was simply the quantum of returnee migrants, a district like Beed deserved equal attention. The number of Covid cases in Maharashtra are rising sharply every day, and the total number remains higher than any other state. It is safe to assume, in the face of uncertain lockdown periods, that many migrant workers might be expected to stay put in their home districts for the next few months.

But, would including Beed and other such districts under the PMGKRA solve the problems at hand? Some questions remain unanswered. For instance, the wage paid to these workers is unclear. Will it be the minimum wage, Rs 202 (recently raised due to the crisis by 20 rupees) that is the daily remuneration under MGNREGA, or will it be higher, considering that the skills of these workers fetches them at least Rs 500-600 a day in the city? Secondly, if they wait for success in these 116 districts and then launch the scheme in districts like Beed, that would be after 125 days (4 months) or essentially seven months into the Covid-19 crisis.

That is certainly too long a wait for this district wherein people are in dire need of employment opportunities. Finally, we must also keep in mind the fact that the scheme is being implemented through Common Service Centers (CSCs). The visible levels of implementation obstacles, lack of accountability and transparency in payments by CSCs are well known. Therefore, while launching a scheme close to the MGNREGA formula might seem like relief for returning migrants, in reality, the case study of Beed highlights that the scheme is poorly thought-out, with little consideration of the fact that there are several districts apart from the included ‘aspirational districts’ which witness a high number of returnees demanding employment.

Redemption of lives lost every day calls for this scheme to be reformed while considering diverse issues in different districts of the country. We suggest that the inclusion/ exclusion criteria be set solely on the basis of existing employment opportunities and the number of returning migrants, and each district be evaluated independently so that districts like Beed do not lose out on benefits under the garb of being in ‘high performing’ states.

(The writers are Masters students in Public Policy at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru)