MGNREGA: Rural Employment Support Weakens Even As Distress Rises 

Rising Distress

Work under MGNREGA is once again crucial and the only real form of social security available to many informal sector workers. Unlike during the first wave, the government has not announced any cash transfers, although food entitlements have been extended.

Informal workers, including migrant workers and street vendors, are once again facing the brunt of lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the virus, said a report by the Stranded Workers Action Network.

The group, which connects relief to workers stranded across India, found that 81% of the workers who had contacted them last year have once again found themselves without work due to locally declared lockdowns. The survey was released on May 5. Most distress calls SWAN received were from workers in states like Delhi, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh.

Khaana Chahiye, a Mumbai based non-profit organisation, also said they have been receiving a steadily rising number of distress calls as the lockdown in the city continues.

This time, migrants anticipated the lockdowns and several sent their families back, while they themselves pooled resources to stay in the city and sustain themselves, said Ruben Mascarenhas, co-founder and director at Khaana Chahiye Foundation. Still, though not as evident as the reverse migration last time, “there is a steady stream of people moving lock, stock and barrel to villages,” Mascarenhas said.

This reverse migration will ensure that demand for rural jobs will remain high or even rise further.

Need For A Plan

Rajendran Narayan, assistant professor at Azim Premji University, who is also co-founder of the SWAN Network, said the government should start working on alternatives amid high distress.

Narayan suggested providing an unemployment allowance to all active job cardholders if work takes a hit. While the Act mandates that at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year be provided to every rural household, an additional 50 days of wage employment can be provided at times of natural calamities. Dey agreed. This provision has been used by states such as Uttarakhand and Gujarat in the past and should be enforced nationally now, he said.

For FY22, the government has set aside an MGNREGA budget of Rs. 73,000 crore, lower than the Rs 1.15 lakh crore revised estimated spending in FY21.

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