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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 31, New Delhi, July 18, 2020

NREGA: The “digging hole” of Modi must take care of poor | Arun Srivastava

Friday 17 July 2020

by Arun Srivastava

The much despised and derided NREGA scheme has at least helped the Modi government to salvage its prestige and image. If the UPA government had not executed this pro-poor, feed the poor programme it would have been tough to comprehend the nature and quantum of ignominy that the Modi government had to suffer.

Basically this programme was meant for the unskilled daily wage earner labourers, but the Central government used it to overcome the crisis created by the return of the crores of migrant labourers to their respective native states.

It is most unfortunate that the Central government has not initiated to provide it a new character and visibility. Corona pandemic has unravelled the truth that the poor daily wage earners and labourers were the invisible face of India. But it does appear that the Modi government has been contemplating to take action to ameliorate the condition of these 70 crore hapless work force.

In the wake of the lockdown when the labourers started fleeing the cities, state governments, especially the chief minister of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh had promised to provide jobs to the labourers that suited to their skills. But soon it became clear that they were not fully equipped to keep their promises and eventually even the skilled were made to do NREGA jobs. Skilled labourers were supposed to dig the canals and do earth work. In fact the governments had not set up a machinery to judge their work acumen and offer them the jobs that suit them. The NREGA served the purpose of mere survival. But what was worse the money, the wages, could not help them purchase the essentials for their survival.

As usual the prime minister Narendra Modi resorting to his populist politics launched the ’Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyaan’ via video conference in Katihar village in Bihar in the presence of chief ministers of five states Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and a minister of Odisha. The scheme was to work in a mission mode in 116 districts across these six states where the maximum number of the migrant workers have returned. But this scheme is nothing but a paper tiger. It has failed to reach to the concerned people. This was yet another reason that labourers jumped to grab the offer of the middlemen of the industrialists to return to the cities.

The issue of migrant workers has evoked widespread debate in the development discourse in India. Migration is neither unique nor new to India. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted that the refugee crisis would be the defining feature of the decade back in 2015. In India’s case, the Five-Year Plan documents bring out that migration was not adequately factored in development plans. This is surprising because migration impacts competitiveness, productivity and jobs. This issue has, however, acquired heightened significance during the corona pandemic.

The exodus of migrant labour is visible and their suffering is palpable. We need to provide undivided attention to the working conditions of migrant workers. Out of the total labour force of 70 crores, around 91 per cent are informal workers in 2017-18. The Economic Survey (2017) estimated 139 million seasonal or circular migrants. Circular urban migrants perform essential labour and provide services that many people want but are unwilling to provide themselves. Hence, this issue has implications for livelihoods, agriculture, food security, and safety net policy as well as programme responses.

The idea of “one nation one ration card” may appear to be soothing to ears but in reality this is an absurd concept. This does not address the problem of ration-card portability. Every state has its distinct character. It is said that the move would benefit nearly 670 million people and will be completed by March 2021. But what about the rest population. This is not like voter list where only above 18 years of age are listed. The one card idea must cover the entire population of 135 crores. A closer look provide the impression that it is more on the lines of the citizenship act. This will not help the labourers.

The failure of the governments was primary responsible for their moving back to the cities which ironically had exploited, misbehaved with them and ill-treated them. A large number of labourers went back to the cities even after facing the grave danger of being infected with the coronavirus. The labourers had come back to their village nursing the view that they would earn their livelihood in their native places and live with their families. But they had to confront a situation where the states had failed to develop to take care of their people.

Unfortunately they had to leave. The middlemen could lure them away simply for the inability of the governments to offer them the suitable nature of jobs. While leaving for their new destination within a couple of months of their arrival, they in no uncertain words told that it was better to die of corona rather than die of hunger. This is the worst ever censure of the governments, which had promised moon to the poor, dalits and daily wage earners.

The anti-labour character of the state was clearly visible with some of the states, particularly Madhya Pradesh, Harayana and Uttar Pradesh promulgating ordinance freezing for three years the enforcement of central labour laws on wage hikes, working hours and worker welfare o attract investments. True enough this was done only for giving more flexibility to investors but also making firings easier for smaller employers.

The Union Labour minister Santosh Gangwar at the meeting of CII, FICCI and Assocham had suggested a suspension of labour laws for the next two to three years — except for provisions like minimum wages, bonus and statutory dues --- to help the industry come out of the present crisis, a government release said. The chambers also suggested increasing working hours to 12 a day.

CII director-general Chandrajit Banerjee said: “The labour law changes initiated in UP and MP will give huge flexibility to industry in their labour practices. Coming at such disruptive times, when livelihoods have come under pressure and multitudes of people have had to move away from their workplaces, these new policy interventions will come as a huge relief to economic activity. There is a need to re-skill and map the workers who have been displaced and re-employ “.

One question that obviously arises is; Who will benefit if employers are given even more freedom to hire and fire? The problem is not in the laws. It is in the mindset of those who advocate such reforms. In 2013, the Planning Commission asked Bain & Company to conduct an objective study of enterprises in India. The management consultancy firm was asked to test the hypothesis that the long-term performance of the companies, who treat their employees as long-term assets is better than the ones who consider workers as a burden and as costs to be adjusted, whenever sales drop. The companies were compared with their peers in the same industries. The hypothesis was validated. The companies that invested in their workers, and held on to them as assets, did much better, even though they went through the same dips in the business environment as their peers did.

The media have also been responsible for their invisibility. Unorganized labour, with no formal representation, was not on their radar. Tracking labour has not been a news beat for a few decades. The capitalist media devoid of morality and ethics has been out to portray them in bad light. Their move to flee the slap of hunger and insecurity was portrayed by the media as their being the players in the Hindu-Muslim divide.

The other reason for the invisibility of migrants who build cities and keep the wheels of micro, small and medium enterprises running has been the attitude of the cities. They don’t look at migrant workers as human beings, he added. They are anonymous, and not meant to become citizens.

A group of 30 odd migrant labourers who had come to their village in Odisha in search of peace and alternate jobs from Kerala and Chennai because of the lockdown transformed their village. Thet were aghast to see the miseries of their co villagers. “There was no work for us in the village on our return, and we had spent all our money during the lockdown,” said Prashant Pradhan, 30, who had returned home from Kerala in May, “So we thought we should do something instead of sitting idle. We spoke to fellow villagers and decided to work in the fields.”

The village lacked a reliable source of irrigation and depended on seasonal rain and a well. A stream flows about a kilometre from the village. It’s a perennial stream and has never gone dry even in summer. They decided to dig a canal from the stream to their fields. Some 85 villagers, including the returned migrants, began the work. About 40 people from neighbouring villages too arrived to help. They would gather early in the morning every day and work till evening, with a break for lunch and a few hours’ rest in the afternoon. After 25 days’ toil, the canal was ready.

This work was supposed to be done under NREGA. But the local administration abandoned its responsibility and eventually the villagers did it on their own.

It is surprising that the Union government has not been doing cash transfer to the labourers in right spirit and manner. Astonishingly the government was also not expanding NREGA in rural areas and introducing an employment guarantee programme in urban areas respectively. At present NREGA is availed of only for 50 days of employment, although the Act guarantees 100 days of employment. One way to help the poor and informal workers is to strengthen it. Though there are two proposals; first to increase the number of days under the scheme from 100 to 150 in rural areas and second to introduce an Employment Guarantee Act in urban areas and provide employment for 150 days. But tis was not being done on the pretext that fund involved is quite huge.

Over the last few years, MGNREGA had been facing the existential crisis, engineered by successive governments capping its financial resources, and turning it into a supply-based programme. With very little autonomy, gram panchayats had begun to find implementation cumbersome. State governments were only interested in running the programme to the extent funds were made available from the Centre. Govt has been groping in the dark on the migrant issue. This must change. Migrant workers must be able to believe that this is a country for all, without any discrimination.

The lockdown has resulted in a massive loss of livelihoods, and the 70 crore strong unorganised workforce is the worst hit. There is imperative need to simply reach out to them. The fact remains that the nation failed them during their hours of need. These people sought a little assistance from the country in their quest to reach their humble abodes, but the country failed to provide them food and shelter.

The worst thing that has tumbled out during this period of crisis is the government has no correct statistics of people living below the poverty line and are actually not getting even one time meal. In sharp contrast across the world, migrants keep moving in search of better economic options.

The insensitivity of the political institution could be gauged from the simple fact that Narendra Modi during the time of pandemic was demanding discipline and sacrifice from the people, while offering no measures to alleviate distress of those who have lost their dignity and livelihoods. Modi played gimmick. He had said that Mahabharat was won in 18 days and he would finish corona in 21 days. But alas, even after four months of his speech there is no sign of decimation of the pandemic.

While the country is yet to come out of the crisis and the migrant labourers are still looking for some alternate jobs, the monsoon has arrived. With advancement of monsoon the situation will turn worse. There is an urgent need to evolve a mechanism to face the challenge and save the migrant labourers. The government must explore the ways as to how to prevent hunger during the rainy season. This is the worst time of the year for poor. The NREGA will help but certainly not the entire work force. A huge proportion of labourers would be exposed to hunger

The author, a Kolkata-based senior journalist, can be contacted at sriv52[at]gmail.com

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