Three years ago, lakhs of panic-stricken and desperate migrant workers, compelled to leave their places of work, were fleeing towards their native places under acute distress. Many were undertaking the treacherous journey on foot. It is a cruel coincidence then, that at a time the nation is commemorating the third anniversary of the 2020 lockdown, workers from several states have gathered at the capital’s Jantar Mantar to protest the alleged dilution of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, popularly known through its abbreviation MNREGA, or simply, NREGA. The 100-day protest started on 23 February.
Like many others at the protest, Bilasi, a young woman in her thirties, has been left with no incentive to work ever since the union government brought in three back-to-back policy manoeuvres concerning the scheme. Till as recently as January, she had managed to scrape out a living working under MNREGA—the widely-appreciated demand-based scheme launched in 2006 by the Congress-led UPA government under former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. The scheme guarantees “at least 100 days of employment a year to every rural household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work”—much-needed for Bilasi, who endures the ills of poverty on a daily basis. MNREGA, which involves a range of work from digging ponds to working on plantations, not only offers her a financial lifeline but also promises her a life of relative dignity in the familiarity of her native place in Jharkhand. It keeps her from wandering off to big urban centres in search of a better life.
All that has changed for Bilasi since the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) made it compulsory to record digital attendance of MNREGA workers at all worksites through the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) mobile application. Unless the MNREGA ‘mate’—the on-site supervisor—uploaded two location and time-stamped photos of workers on the scheme’s website at different intervals during the day, the workers’ attendance of the day would not be registered. This means they will not get paid. In Bilasi’s remote village in West Singhbhum, one of the poorest districts in the country, this push for digitalisation of attendance faces obvious infrastructural obstacles.
“Network is a huge problem for us. Some days we do not even have electricity,” she says. “If we work the entire day but our attendance is not registered, won’t our work be futile?”
But that’s not all. There is yet another policy change deterring Bilasi from MNREGA work. On 30 January , the union government announced that the Aadhaar-Based Payment System (ABPS) would be compulsory for MNREGA workers starting from 1 February, giving workers a notice period of a mere two days. Earlier, Aadhaar-based payment was optional. Workers could also be paid through ordinary bank transfers, something they preferred. Now, activists argue, workers whose bank accounts are not ABPS-compliant will not receive wage payments. Moreover, according to the MoRD’s own March 2023 report, only 43 percent of MNREGA workers across the country are eligible for ABPS under which money is sent to the person’s latest Aadhaar-linked account. In case of any errors in her Aadhaar card, bank account or job card, Bilasi has to travel all the way to the district headquarters for rectification. That would cost her Rs 300 in travel fares, more than the Rs 237 that MNREGA workers in Jharkhand get paid for a day’s toil, which is already less than the market rate like in most states. “I will have to make multiple trips. The correction does not happen in a day,” says Bilasi, sighing deeply.
Among the protestors at Jantar Mantar is Nirmal Singh from Latehar, also in Jharkhand. Prior to the lockdown in 2020 that was enforced to curb the first wave of COVID-19, Singh was working as a pantry boy in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The abrupt closure of business forced him to return home, where MNREGA offered him solace. After a distressing experience during the lockdown, Singh decided to stay back in his village, close to his wife and two children. But now he’s worried again. The compulsory ABPS has complicated matters for him.
Discrepancies in his documents mean he is not sure of receiving payment even if he works. Setting them right is a cumbersome task. “My name was printed ‘Nirmal’ in my Aadhaar card and bank account but in the job card issued to me it was misspelt as ‘Normal,’” says Singh, laughing ruefully about the error. To complicate it further, he says his bank account was mistakenly linked to someone else’s Aadhaar account.
Apart from the compulsory payment system linked to one’s Aadhaar and mobile-application based attendance, activists have also flagged a decreased budgetary allocation for MNREGA for the year 2023-24. This year’s allocation including wage arrears from the previous season was Rs 60,000 crore (an 18 percent drop from the Rs 73,000 budget estimate of 2022-23) which is the lowest amount allocated as a proportion of GDP (0.2%) in the history of the programme, say activists. Activists and Opposition parties, therefore, have accused the BJP-led government of drastically undermining MNREGA through reduced budgetary allocation and enforcing technical complications leading to no payment or delayed payments and overall discouragement from work.
Experts as well as researchers have compellingly argued that MNREGA offered critical support to migrant workers during the two waves of COVID-19. The numbers speak for themselves. According to data collected from the scheme’s Management Information System by two MNREGA watchdogs—People’s Action for Employment Guarantee and the NREGA Sangarsh Morcha, the person-days of MNREGA work in 2020-21 and 2021-22 increased by 54 and 44 percent, respectively, compared to the average of the last three years before the pandemic. The number of persons who demanded work during the two years also increased by 49 and 38 percent, respectively.
A recent study conducted by Azim Premji University along with the NREGA Consortium found that for families which found work during both periods (pre-COVID and COVID), increased earnings from MNREGA were able to compensate for 20 to 80 percent of income loss. For families who had not worked in the pre-COVID year, the increased earnings from MNREGA during the pandemic year compensated for 20 to 100 percent of income loss. Significantly, the study—which covered 2,000 households in eight blocks across the four large states of Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra—also found that when people were asked to point to specific positive aspects of MNREGA, “not having to migrate” was the most frequently mentioned. In Karnataka, more than 60 percent of the households felt that MNREGA had contributed to the overall development of the village. The report also illustrated that in the absence of options under MNREGA, the majority of households surveyed maintained that their main alternative would be to work on someone else’s farm.
MNREGA activists as well as labour experts argue that though MNREGA is not, by itself, sufficient to prevent migration of people from villages to cities in search of better livelihoods, it can play a role in slowing down migration and offering financial relief caused by acute distress, such as the pandemic. In fact, when faced with reverse migration of workers back to their home states during the pandemic, states were left with only two options: activating MNREGA and the Public Distribution System of supplying food grains.
Noted economist Jean Dreze is not confident that the majority of MNREGA workers yet to link their accounts with the Aadhaar-based payment system would be able to do so soon. “It is a pity. COVID was a chance to revive NREGA. The interest of the workers had been revived,” says Dreze, acknowledging the ‘slowing down effect’ that MNREGA has on migration and that the scheme cannot work if the wages are not paid on time, or not paid at all. “To create a situation where people are working and not being paid is unacceptable,” he rues.
Despite its flawed implementation, tight budget and delayed payments, the scheme was serving its goals till the introduction of the app-based attendance and Aadhaar-based payment, says Kripa Xaxa, a MNREGA mate from Latehar. Xaxa carries a smartphone but there is poor network connectivity and erratic power supply in her village. “How can we charge our phones without electricity? I cannot upload the photos if there is no phone network,” says Xaxa. However, Xaxa is better off than those mates who don’t even have a smartphone or know how to use the application properly.
Though a scientific study into the impact of the three decisions on MNREGA workers is yet to be conducted, official data from January and February cited by activists does point to a reduced demand for MNREGA. While in 2019-20, 47.75 crore person-days were generated under MNREGA in these two months, during the two pandemic years it shot up to 56.94 crore and 53.07 crore. However, this year it has come down to 34.59 crore, according to PAEG’s data. Reiterating this finding, James Herenj, convenor of NREGA Watch, an NGO in Jharkhand, says that if MNREGA is made complicated, people will stop working and be forced to migrate to cities. “These technical complications and reduced funds are killing the interest of the worker,” says Herenj.
Ashish Ranjan, an activist from Bihar, says that whenever MNREGA work opens, migration in the rural areas of the state gets delayed or shortened. But with the falling demand due to lack of payments, budget cuts and technical complications, the number of people migrating outward has gone up, he claims. “MNREGA has become a supply-driven scheme,” says Ranjan. In fact, if MNREGA becomes ineffective, distress migration will get acute, say experts. In Bihar, like in many other states, farm labour is seasonal, and according to Ranjan, does not guarantee more than 50 days of work a year with increase in mechanisation. Since farming is not providing employment, MNREGA becomes even more important, he says.
Echoing Ranjan, Herenj argues that the problem of migration could deepen in the absence of employment in the home state. “Men and young boys are once again heading for the cities in larger numbers. Out of 24 districts, there is drought declared in 22 districts in our state. Farming has been hit and there is water shortage in many areas. Without a guaranteed income source at home, what option do people have?” asks Herenj.
Recently, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the rural job scheme was becoming a victim of the centre’s “repressive” policies. Union Minister of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Giriraj Singh shot back at Gandhi, saying that during the 10-year rule of the Congress-led UPA, “the budget estimate (BE) of MNREGA never exceeded Rs 33,000 crore.” Singh rattled off that in the pandemic year 2020, “the BE of Rs 61,500 crore was revised to Rs 1.11 lakh crore and that in the second year of the pandemic, the BE was Rs 73,000 which was revised to 98,000 crore.” In the current financial year 2022-23, a total of “99.81% rural households have been offered wage employment against their demand for work,” said Singh. In a similar vein, the union government has offered several clarifications to dismiss the charges of the Opposition as well as activists, arguing that fund release to the states was a continuous process and that technical glitches were being corrected.
Amid the protests by MNREGA workers and demands by several states, the MoRD also relaxed the ABPS system and announced it would follow a mixed model for payments to MNREGA workers till March 31, providing interim relief for Bilasi and her peers. However, what cannot be denied is the negative impact the new rules have left on the beneficiaries. COVID-19 may have long lost its sting but the woes of India’s labour population and migrants continue, once again due to complications created by those in power. If unchecked, we would once again witness an exodus of workers from their homes in villages to crowded urban jungles in search of livelihoods and dignified lives.
(This appeared in the print as "In Search of Better Lives")