Bihar Elections: For angry electorate of returning migrant workers, NREGA offers little succour

Editor’s Note: By June 2020, at least 32 lakh migrant workers returned to Bihar, driven home by the pandemic. The state’s resources, already stressed to capacity, has barely managed to resettle these workers. Their daily economic hardship is now the primary issue in the run up to Bihar’s Assembly election, scheduled to take place between 28 October and 7 November. Firstpost travelled through the state to understand those issues faced by migrant workers that will play a critical role in voting patterns. This is the first report in a multi-part series.

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“Why will someone do physical labour under MGNREGA for Rs 170-200 when they can earn Rs 300-400 doing the same work for a private contractor? MGNREGA is dead,” says Jameel Akhtar, the mukhiya of the Kakila panchayat in Jagdishpur block in Bihar’s Bhojpur district. He speaks to this reporter surrounded by a crowd of villagers who are mostly migrant workers, those who returned to the village after the 24 March lockdown that was imposed — with less than five hours notice — to control the spread of COVID-19.

The summer of 2020 didn’t just witness a steep climb in coronavirus cases in India. Another number rose steadily - the number of households enrolled under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). From April to August, over 83 lakh new households joined the NREGA labour force by getting job cards, taking the number of families under the scheme to an all-time high of 14.36 crore.

Job cards under the NREGA. Many villagers said that they signed up for work under the scheme but were not allotted any work. Devparna Acharya/Firstpost

The election-bound state of Bihar has the highest proportion of outward migration of workers in the country, and was most affected by the COVID-19 lockdown and the ensuing migrant workers’ crisis. The crisis is also one of the major issues in the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections, especially for the incumbent Nitish Kumar-led JD(U)-BJP government. The Election Commission has enrolled 6.5 lakh new voters over the last six months as part of the ongoing updation of the voters’ list, ahead of the Assembly polls starting 28 October. Among them are an estimated 3 lakh migrant labourers who returned home during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Until June 2020, at least 32 lakh migrant workers had returned to Bihar. Since their return, the government mapped their skills for employment. The workers have no choice but to rely on NREGA for employment in their villages, given that they have lost their jobs due to the lockdown.

People's Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), an independent body working on NREGA since 2004, tracked the progress of the Act in Bihar between July and August to provide some broad statistics from the NREGA Management Information System (MIS), such as the number of households that have completed 100 days of work, the number of households nearing completion of 100 days of work, amount of funds left with states, a comparison between work demanded and employment provided for select states.

PAEG noted that while the government claims to have provided employment to 34 lakh households — which is the highest in the last three years — only 2,136 households have completed a 100 days of work so far. In comparison, 33,000 households in Madhya Pradesh and 27,000 households in Rajasthan have completed 100 days of work. Except April, the number of households which were given employment up to August 2020 was at least 1.5 times more compared to each of the previous three years, the report noted.

At least 11.01 lakh job cards were issued in Bihar since 1 April, 2020. Of the 83 lakh job cards issued across India, 14.17 percent were issued in Bihar, the report added.

An angry, unemployed electorate

According to Jameel, the rules under NREGA are flawed and the Act benefits neither the labourer nor the employer. "Only a public representative knows how difficult it is to get people enrolled under NREGA. I became mukhiya in 2016 and I was eager to get youths in my village work under NREGA. So, I opened a small project and employed workers from the village. But the system is broken,” adds Jameel. “The payment never comes on time. Why will a worker wait for five-six months for a paltry sum of money?”

This is not an isolated situation. This reporter travelled across eight districts to assess the ground situation and found that there was a deep disconnect between the state, the district and panchayat level officials, especially when it came to implementation of welfare schemes announced for the migrant workers during the crisis.

About 115 kilometres away from Jameel’s village, Lal Mahto from Kartahan Bujurg panchayat in Vaishali district of Bihar is waiting for the borders of India-Nepal to reopen. “I get 0.63 paise more in Kathmandu compared to my friends who work in India,” says Mahto, who belongs to the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) and has been unemployed since his return in March this year.

A group of women in Bujurg. Devparna Acharya

His mother, 50-year-old Krishna Devi sits near the temple shade carefully guarding the NREGA job card issued by the Bihar government in July this year. “We got a job card but never heard about any job after that,” she says flipping through the booklet which has her and her son’s name. The rest of the booklet, which is supposed to be a log of the jobs assigned and completed by the households, is empty. “We have been reduced to begging and seeking alms. Beggars have a better life. At least they don’t pretend to be “workers” or “labourers”.

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Vaishali is one of the 32 districts in poll-bound Bihar where Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan on 20 June 2020 to provide employment to migrant labourers. The scheme was expected to provide some relief to migrant labourers who returned to their native states after having lost work. To give an estimate of the scale of the problem, as many as 24,19,052 labourers had returned from Delhi, Karnataka, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and many other states after the lockdown was imposed.

Reports had indicated that 12 different departments and ministries were to work in a coordinated way to ensure employment opportunities to needy migrant labourers, as per their skill set. That was four months ago.

“The Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi government told all Bihari workers to return home after the lockdown. The government promised them job opportunities in their home state,” said Nikhilesh, an RTI and social activist, who is at the loggerheads with the state government over the rights of the villagers. “But six months later, migrant workers and their families are dying of hunger because this anti-poor government has not kept its word.” According to Nikhilesh, most of the affected families from nearby panchayats belong to Extremely Backward Classes, and the Mahadalit sub-category.

Ahead of an election that is expected to be fiercely contested, the majority of Bihar’s villages are teeming with a young and angry populace. The crowd comprises mainly young men (between 20-35 years of age). They are jobless, frustrated and they feel that the government doesn’t even notice them till the elections are upon them.

Govt promises only on paper

“They have issued job cards, but where are the jobs?” asks 25-year-old Chandan Kumar Vidyarthi, a Mahadalit, who hails from Parsauna village in Saran district.

The Mahadalit village of Parsauna. Devparna Acharya/Firstpost

Chandan was working in Gujarat’s Anjaan when the lockdown was imposed. Part of a group of eight men, Chandan found himself jobless and penniless after the private contractor who employed them said there is no work, since a lockdown has been imposed. “We sat without work and money for three months, trying to return home. But the condition is worse here, I think. At least outside, there is a guarantee that we will get some work and earn up to Rs 400 a day. There is absolutely nothing in Bihar,” he says.

Parsauna is a Mahadalit village. Mahadalits are considered a subcategory of Dalits in Bihar and, together with the Dalits, make up about 18 percent of the state’s population. In 2007, Nitish Kumar brought 20 most backward and deprived SC castes under one umbrella and christened the grouping as Mahadalit. He announced schemes and programmes for their economic and social upliftment. Nitish, in fact, was instrumental in Manjhi being appointed as chief minister of Bihar.

“It has been five months since I returned. In these five months, we haven’t received even a penny from the Bihar government. There are no jobs in Bihar. We have submitted the necessary forms to apply for a job and it has been a year. We are on the brink of starvation. We are living off borrowed money from neighbours. They are not even allowing us to return and resume work,” Chandan added.

The fact that there is a vast difference between the official version of events and the ground reality, is interesting to note. Considering that migrant workers who returned to the state by June 2020 form a considerable chunk of the voter base, one would expect the government to be in crisis management mode by now. But residents of rural Bihar feel it makes no difference to the political class if workers live or die.

Elaborating on the government's apathy toward the poorer sections of society, 35-year-old Aditya , who is a farmer, asks how Rs 200 is sufficient for any family. “First of all, since the lockdown, there is no work even under NREGA. The floods have made things worse, but the government has no sympathy for us.”

According to the farmers in Sonepur’s Bakarpur village, the town mandi was shut down in April to enforce social distancing to control the spread of coronavirus. “Politicians and netas are arranging massive rallies. No one talks about social distancing then. But the strictest clampdown is on the poorest sections of society,” says Aditya.

Farmers in Sonepur questioned why strict lockdown were only reserved for poorer sections of society. Devparna Acharya/Firstpost

Farmers in Sonepur unanimously and quite bluntly dubbed the current government ‘anti-poor’ and ‘anti-farmer’. “We read in papers “so many jobs created” in Bihar, where are the jobs? We need work, we don’t have work. Administration defers every meeting, and asks us to come back later. We don’t have a union. Our fields are ruined after the floods and MGNREGA is a dead scheme. The wages are extremely low and the payments don’t even come on time. We are poor farmers and workers. We cannot wait for six months. Our families will die of hunger,” says Pankaj Singh Parmar, a small-time farmer who used to grow vegetables on his 4-acre plot of land. He has been unemployed since May, and has a family of eight to feed.

A flooded paddy field on the route to . Devparna Acharya/Firstpost

While the State’s promises remain on paper, villagers are worn out and weary. The coronavirus is barely a concern in rural Bihar. “Bhukhmari zinda rakhega tab na coronavirus maarega (Coronavirus will only get to us if we escape starvation),” says Balendar Ram, a daily wage labourer from Mahaddipur village in Muzaffarpur who returned six months ago from Haryana’s Gurugram. “I walked from Gurugram to Uttar Pradesh,” says Balendar, who belongs to the Mahadalit category. Balendar is aware that a job card is a government document which assures you employment. However, he quickly adds that he does not have a job card although he has asked for it several times.

A kutcha road leading towards Mahaddipur. Devparna Acharya/Firstpost

Whose line is it anyway?

Firstpost met with Raju Ram the mukhia-pati (the husband of the official mukhia) of the Pakri panchayat (In Bihar, despite women being official mukhias, it is a common practice for their husbands to wield actual power in panchayats.) Raju asserts he has worked a lot towards creating job opportunities for migrant workers in his panchayat, and said, “I can only go and ask. If my name will get them jobs, I will sign anywhere. Block and district level officials are very uncooperative. In the last 5 years that I have been the mukhia, not a single job card has been issued in the panchayat. When you ask, the BDO saheb says it will happen.”

Firstpost tried reaching out to the block-level officials, but no one was available for a comment.

Speaking to Firstpost, the District Magistrate of Bhojpur, Roshan Khushwaha said, “As far as job creation via MNREGA is concerned, when the labourers needed a job, NREGA came to their rescue, they received job cards and they worked. As the situation improved and opportunities opened up, the ones who were established and had a secured job, started getting ready to return. The workers were worried about returning, because what had happened was unprecedented.”

According to Khushwaha, work offered under MGNREGA is more subsistence than sustenance, since it pays a minimum wage. The current wage under NREGA is Rs 202. It was increased from Rs 172 after the Centre imposed the first lockdown in March 2020.  According to the DM, skilled workers who came from organised sectors didn’t want to work because they were performing “better services” in metro cities. He is right.

(Firstpost tried reaching out to other district officials for comment, but due to the model code of conduct, they refused to comment on the issue).

Experts speak

According to frontline social workers who closely worked with returning migrant workers and initially helped them with food and counselling, the workers felt hopeful when the Bihar government started mapping their skills upon their return.

“It led to nothing. Due to the immense political pressure building up on the state government, some work opportunities did come under MGNREGA, at least in the initial days. However, the workers weren’t paid on time. The migrant workers (before the lockdown was imposed) were also earning way more than what NREGA wages currently are (Rs 202 per day), and even with the low wages, the payment would not come on time. There was no guarantee of when the payment would come. There was literally no incentive for the poor workers.”

Dr Sharadi Kumari, a social activist working with ActionAid Association in Bihar, who was involved with the returning migrants, said that the workers expected the government to incentivise agro-based industries. According to Sharadi, there is a huge population of tenant farmers in Bihar. Absentee landlords rent out their land to poor farmers who till and harvest crops, and give a portion of the harvest to the landlord as compensation. Several migrant workers divide their time between tenancy farming and working in other states for a better livelihood. There was no incentive for them. “Work under MGNREGA has completely stopped now. The fact that payments were extremely delayed was one of the most prominent reasons why workers stopped demanding work under MGNREGA," she said.

Professor Ravi Srivastava, who has extensively researched and worked on labour, employment and migration, says Bihar has been the weakest as far as MGNREGA is concerned because there is no political commitment to drive these schemes. “There has always been a fear of empowering the grassroots economy. It threatens the position of the State and the Centre. There is a strong political economy that doesn’t want schemes like MGNREGA to succeed on the grassroot level. The land-owners and the rural political class fear that if there is an alternative source of labour demand and employment in the villages for poorer people, they will become autonomous and empowered. There always has been the apprehension that it will drive up the rural wages,” says Srivastava.

The grassroots economy in Bihar, which can be bolstered by schemes like NREGA, is in a shambles. The villagers from districts like Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Sonepur, Saran, Bhojpur, Samastipur, Nalanda, Nawada, Chhapra, Arrah, among others are living in a world without information and knowledge of their rights. They have never seen a gram sabha or a rojgar sahayak. Local activists and social workers fight for their rights while the poor and extremely backward sections scramble to make ends meet.

“You need a grassroot-level machinery prepared to be driven, the rozgar sahayaks and the block machinery. These machineries weren’t set up by block or district level officials. Machineries like MGNREGA were set up by well-intentioned bureaucrats and ministers sitting in Delhi. The idea was to generate employment and bureaucrats would helm it. That never happened.”



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