As many as 3.5 million new workers have sought jobs under MGNREGA since April 1, the highest number of applications in a decade, but there may not be enough work to engage them all, according to government data and officials in multiple states.
According to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme website, around 3.5 million new job applications have come in the current financial year since April 1 till May 20. For the same period in the last fiscal, the new applicants were about 1.8 lakh.
A clear indication of rural economic distress is that in the entire 2019-20, the applications for new jobs were about 1.5 million, less than half of what has been received in mere 50 days of the current financial year.
The national data also showed that the cumulative job applications as on May 20 stood at 43.3 million people and only half of them have been provided work so far.
The maximum increase in demand for jobs cards has been from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, states which have received the most number of migrant workers from various parts of the country.
Seeing the surge in demand, many of the state governments have directed district authorities to create a pool of additional work and get approvals within the next fortnight.
Under MGNREGA, district authorities are expected to create a work budget for the year on the basis of the job applicants in February and March of the previous financial year.
“Situation is different this year as demand for work started growing in April once the migrants started returning home,” Sidharth Tripathy, Jharkhand’s special MGNREGA commissioner, said.
Rajasthan’s NREGA commissioner PC Kishan said normally there is a slight increase, three to 5%, in new job applications when the financial year starts.
“This year, we have seen two lakh new job cards since April 1, which is equal to new job cards issued in the entire 2019-2020. This is not normal,” Kishan said.
Nikhil Dey, who has worked on MGNREGA since the law came into force in 2005, said the number of new job applications received in the past two months normally comes in a year.
“Apart from the migrants returning home, even locals are seeking job under NREGA because of lack of employment opportunities anywhere,” Dey said.
State government officials said as there are not enough sanctioned works, there is a delay in providing employment to so many people.
“Nobody had anticipated such a situation,” Jharkhand’s Tripathy said and added they have been engaging MGNREGA workers in pre-monsoon works such as maintaining of ponds or digging of wells.
“We have also taken additional road construction work where MGNREGA worker can be employed,” he said.
Bihar’s rural development department secretary Arvind Kumar Chaudhary said the department has decided to employ MGNREGA workers for flood management works that have started from May first week.
Odisha would be using migrant workers, who have returned, in works to repairing the damage and rebuilding from Cyclone Amphan, apart from pre-monsoon works and for road construction.
The state’s bid to provide more work has got impetus from the central government, which has decided to give Rs 40,000 crore in addition to Rs 61,000 crore provided in the budget for 2020-21.
This, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman said last week, will be the largest ever allocation for MGNREGA and would give a boost to the world’s biggest minimum social security programme that ensures minimum 100 days of work in a year and covers entire rural India.
“We welcome the decision but around 15,000 crore will be used to clear pending amounts from the last financial year. The states need to create enough works to employ all those who have enrolled. If needed, MGNREGA workers can be used for agriculture purpose as there is a shortage of farm labourers,” Reetika Khera, a development economist working with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, said.
MGNREGA, which has been decried in the past by some leaders for incurring wasteful expenditure, is now providing succour to migrant workers returning from cities.
“I was working with a building construction company in Bilaspur town but due to lockdown the work stop hence I enrolled myself in MNREGA at my village in Ratanpur. At least I am doing some work and earning some money,” Ratnakar Yadu, a resident of Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur district, said.
Kashiram Ahirwar, a 38-year-old resident of village Mau Bichhoda in Bundelkhand’s Tikamgarh district, returned his village with his wife and two children after losing his mason’s job in Bhind.
“As no construction activity is going on and harvest season is also over here, my only hope is MGNREGA,” he said.
Like him, Balveer Ahirwar, 23, of village Ladwari in the same district and his brother came back after losing their job due to lockdown. They reached from Delhi on May 13, after a week-long journey.
“We have no money left and five quintal wheat from my father’s farm also did not fetch enough money. I and my Ashok are pleading sarpanch to give us work. But, he says that works have not been sanctioned by the local office,” he said.
Jabbar Ahmad, 43, who returned to Bihar’s East Champaran town from Surat, where he used to work in a cotton factory, is looking for a job under MGNREGA.
“I am a trained worker for cotton factory but I am looking for a job under MGNREGA for instant relief,” said Ahmad.
Shirsat Kapil Ashok, East Champaran district magistrate, said many trained people, including some contractual teachers, were asking for a scope to work under MGNREGA.
In some places, there have been reports of school teachers enrolling in the scheme for work.
As for the work provided under the scheme, the national MGNREGA website shows that Rajasthan emerged as the top state in the country with close to 210,000 new works issued in the past 45 days of this financial year.
“We are focusing on the rural job guarantee scheme to provide financial security to rural populations in the current scenario. This has resulted in 24.31 lakh labour engaged in NREGA today,” Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan’s deputy chief minister, said.
Chhattisgarh, which has employed 28.32 lakh people under the scheme, highest ever for the state, has decided that if needed more than 100 days work will be provided under the scheme.
“We are clear if people want we would provide additional work under NREGA for workers in our state even if we have to pay from our own pocket,” said state chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who has already asked the Centre to increase the employment days in a year from 100 to 150 days.
Bhupesh Baghel also said collectors have been asked to ensure that migrants get work under MGNREGA.
Deepak Soni, Surajpur’s collector, said after the quarantine period the workers are being provided work. MGNREGA workers in Chhattisgarh have never crossed 15 lakh mark.
Uttar Pradesh, which has more than half a million new job seeks, has asked districts officials to create new roasters to accommodate additional MGNREGA workers.
“Providing them work at the same time would not be possible for all workers. We would provide them employment in a staggered manner so that more families can be covered in the social security scheme,” a UP rural development department official, who did not want to be named, said.
(With inputs from state bureaus)
Top 5 states in terms of labour engagement on May 21
State Labour engaged (in lakhs)
Uttar Pradesh 30.64
Madhya Pradesh 22.82
West Bengal 18.42