The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme has been officially shut down in at least seven States, while it is effectively closed in many more, as COVID-19 lockdowns come into effect across the country.

Workers’ collectives are demanding relief in the form of wages during the shutdown, payment of pending dues, and extension of the scheme in the next financial year to accommodate more workers and additional days of work. This is especially critical as thousands of migrant workers stream back to their villages, leaving the cities due to the shutdowns.

Letter to PM, FM

Civil society groups have also written to the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and senior State officials, demanding an emergency relief package of ₹7,000 a month for all poor households for April and May, at a total cost to the exchequer of ₹3.75 lakh crore.

“We had already reduced the size of groups at work sites to less than 50, and shifted measurement of work from group attendance to individual attendance. However, in districts where there is curfew, we will pay unemployment allowance for those who have already registered for work as the government is responsible for not providing work,” a senior Rajasthan government official told The Hindu.

At a video conference meeting between the Centre and States last week, it was informed that seven States have already shut down the rural job guarantee scheme, according to people aware of the meeting. However, a number of other States have also closed work sites since then.

“Over the last two days, MGNREGA has completely stopped in Karnataka. We are demanding that unemployment allowance at least must be given to those who have already applied for work under the scheme,” said Abhay Kumar, State coordinator of the Grameen Coolie Karmikara Sangathan, a registered union for rural workers.

He added that it was critical that MGNREGA workers are brought under the ambit of the Building and Other Construction Workers welfare boards. These boards collect a 1% cess from all construction projects in the country, paid by employers for the welfare of workers.

“MGNREGA workers are often employed in construction related projects. As their employer, the government must pay a 1% cess on their behalf, so that they can benefit from the welfare schemes, especially health-related,” Mr. Kumar added.

Siraj Datta, the Jharkhand coordinator for the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, has spent the last couple of days watching as thousands of workers stream into Ranchi’s railway and bus stations, returning to their villages.

‘Absolute mayhem’

“There is absolute mayhem as the State has huge numbers of migrant workers who have lost their jobs and are leaving the cities. What will they do in their villages now? MGNREGA should be one major way to help them, but the scheme needs to be strengthened for that to happen. The wage rate is ₹104 less than the State’s minimum wage of ₹275 per day,” he said, adding that a basic step would be to pay unemployment allowances. “The government is saying that public and private sector employers must give paid leave at this time. For MGNREGA workers, government itself is the employer. Should they not get paid leave as well?”

All these are included among the demands listed in a letter by civil society representatives, including economists Jayati Ghosh and Jean Dreze, Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav, and activists Kavita Krishnan, Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy.

The letter, appealing for a ₹3.75 lakh crore emergency package, was sent to State and Central government representatives on Monday. It demands that MGNREGA be expanded beyond 100 days of guaranteed work in 2020-21, with full wages being paid during the shutdown. Pending wage and material payments, amounting to ₹8,396 crore must be paid immediately, it said.

Three months of advance pensions, and the first instalment of the PM-KISAN scheme for 2020-21 must also be paid immediately, said the letter, adding that three months of free ration must be distributed, along with cooking oil, pulses, salt, masala and soap, for all ration card holders.

Welfare fund

Meanwhile, a group of NGOs representing informal sector workers, including the Working People’s Charter, also wrote to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday, seeking a ₹50,000 crore emergency workers’ welfare fund to be set up by the Centre’s Economic Response Task Force.

The groups highlighted the predicament of informal workers who account for 95% of the workforce — that they are unable to work from home or follow the social distancing norm as their economic conditions do not allow it. They demanded that the government provide free ration for one month to all ration card-holders under the National Food Security Act, an immediate cash transfer of ₹10,000 or the minimum wage if higher than ₹10,000, to workers with BPL and APL cards and two months’ pension to all pensioners under the national pension schemes.

Read More