The supreme irony is the Central government is now trying to champion the cause of migrants by riding on a scheme that was the victim of its indifference for a long, long time till the scheme became a decade old!
The starkest, unfaceable, unforgettable, unforgivable, most horrible and lasting image of Covid which will remain indelibly imprinted on each heart and mind indefinitely, will be that of millions of poor migrants, struggling to walk thousands of miles, despair in their minds but hope in their hearts, with children rolled on suitcase wheels, with Shravan Kumar images of a young son valiantly carrying his aged parents in makeshift scales, with crying but unknowing toddlers pulling blankets off a dead mother lying unclaimed on a railway platform.
This article is not directly about migrants, though there is no more pressing theme in today’s polity. But it is about something which may prove to be the migrants’ backbone, their mainstay and lifeline, their be all and end all, after the walking, after the torture, after the starvation, after they reach their destination.
But for UPA-I’s flagship scheme—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)—those who miraculously survived Covid and, even more impossibly, emerged alive from their tortuous trudge home, would have probably died in their villages for want of food, sustenance and unemployment. Alternatively, if the arrivers survived, their relatives and other pre-existing non-migrant residents would have become victims in the severe and pitiable competition for scarce resources in the receiving district.
On 15 April, albeit after considerable delay, the Home Ministry allowed activities related to MGNREGA to resume. Within days, India realised, political friend and foe alike, right-wing egotist and left-wing activist alike, that the world’s largest social welfare scheme, operationalised by UPA 1 in 2006 is a rare lifeline, almost as if designed for times of extreme adversity.
Firstly, its sheer scale is humongous. As of 31 March 2020, this legally guaranteed provision of work upon demand to anyone in designated rural areas, has, from inception, touched the lives of 12 crore humans, provided 1200 crore of person days of employment, paid out wages aggregating thousands of crores, spread over 146 lakh diverse items of rural work, of which 60% are complete, up and running.
Secondly, Modi 2.0’s recent allocation of an additional amount of Rs 40,000 crore, besides the existing Rs 61,500 crore for the scheme in the current fiscal, was MGNREGA’s sweetest revenge because of PM Modi’s famous words which continue to haunt all BJP-led Central and state governments. His scathing, contemptuous comment (“This is a living monument of your failure to tackle poverty in 60 years”) echoed by his Agriculture and Rural Development Minister in Parliament (“the government is not in favour of running the scheme forever”) and the ruling party’s stand (“living monument of failures” of the UPA government), will remain one of history’s worst political gaffes based on narrow political partisanship.
States have begun to issue job cards to cardless migrants. MGNREGA data suggests that migrants are quick to take up a job at wages that are much less than what they could have made working in metros. Hence, thirdly, eight crore migrants are expected to relocate in the pandemic era. This week, the government stated in the apex court that 91 lakh migrants have been moved to their native places by Shramik Specials and road transport. Assuming this is one-third of the extremely economically marginalised migrants who would require jobs at their homes, around 3 crore additional jobs would be required to be created.
The monthly average of job demands in FY 2019-20 under MGNREGA was already 2.3 crore, which makes the total number of jobs required at least 5 crore in FY 20-21. The current allocation for MGNREGA, including Rs 40,000 crore from the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus package, has been Rs 1,01,500 crore. The government needs to allocate at least another Rs 40,000 crore towards the same to accommodate 5 crore workers. Let us not forget that the current fiscal year started with pending liabilities of the Central government under MGNREGA of Rs 16,045 crore which reduces the net additional available monies to approximately Rs 84,000 crore.
Fourthly, the supreme irony is that the Central government is now trying to champion the cause of migrants by riding on a scheme that was the victim of its indifference for a long, long time till the scheme became a decade old! In 2016, it was hailed by the government as a «cause of national pride and celebration». Ground realities made the MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan term MGNREGA as “one of the best programs since Independence”.
Fifthly, one of the most inexcusable excuses would be to dilute, curtail or modify the scope of the scheme for alleged lack of funds or indulge in any other form of statistical jugglery. To lower the daily wage rate to accommodate more numbers would be catastrophic. Existing demanders of work are hardly getting half of the 100-days guaranteed work program. Their wages are already wrongly, perhaps illegally, below the minimum wage in that state. Indeed, the scheme needs to be enlarged to 200 days in place of 100 days per year. Printing money is the best solution even according to economic pundits during such distress. Fiscal inflexibility is not an end in itself and fiscal prudence is not cast in stone. Normally, the daily wage rate under the scheme is projected to rise by 11% from Rs 182 to Rs 202 for FY 2020-21. It is deplorable that in April 2020, a meagre 34 lakh households were allocated work well below the 1.7 crore in April 2019.
Sixthly, awareness about the scheme is vital. Panchayati Raj institutions and district authorities have to do a blitzkrieg to reach out, to identity, enumerate, classify, list and locate. Only then can job cards and jobs flow to both migrants and pre-existing residents, methodically and smoothly.
Seventhly, it has to be ensured that the work under MGNREGA does not expose labourers to pandemic hazards. Land-based as well as community works go together and ensure that landless workers are not excluded from the scheme. As at other workplaces, availability and supply of safety precautions should be ensured at MGNREGA work sites also. The Right to Life is the most important fundamental right.
Eighthly, MGNREGA has largely been an outcome of demand-driven movements by grassroots civil society organisations. They touch and understand the heart and soul of the scheme. Trust deficit has to be eliminated qua derisively labelled “jholawallahs”. Instead, trusted and capable non-profit, community organisations should be brought into the picture and engaged for awareness, capacity building of functionaries and to act as watchdogs of implementation.
This week the entire nation saw how teachers in Jaipur started working as MGNREGA labourers amid the pandemic. Unfortunate and not to be celebrated, it nevertheless underlines the importance of MGNREGA as a ray of hope amidst extreme darkness.
The scheme is not only an ocean of possibilities for the jobless migrants, but it has also given the Central government a chance to get a second bite at the cherry after the devastating economic and job creation figures now officially out for FY 2019-20. The coming months must test and (hopefully) prove the government’s bona fides, commitment and transparency to a scheme which is India’s pride and the world’s envy.
The author is a third-term sitting MP; former Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee; former Additional Solicitor General, India; Senior National Spokesperson, Congress and jurist. Views are personal.