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The fate of the left-out: A case study of Beed

Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 20:50 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 20:50 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 20:50 IST
Last Updated : 14 July 2020, 20:50 IST

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On June 20, the Prime Minister launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (PM-GKRA) to provide a livelihood opportunity to returning migrants during the Covid-19 lockdown. Somewhat similar to the existing Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), it provides 125 days of employment in various public works like laying pipelines, building roads, community toilets, anganwadis, housing for the rural poor and other such rural infrastructure. These already ongoing government works will now recruit the returnee migrant worker ‘according to his skill’ so that he can work ‘while staying in his own village, while staying with his family’. The scheme is to be launched in 116 districts (those which have over 25,000 returnee workers) across Bihar (32), Rajasthan (22), Madhya Pradesh (24), Uttar Pradesh (31), Jharkhand (3) and Odisha (4).

According to the PMO, these districts cover 66% of such workers. It is unclear whether the scheme would be introduced in other districts of these states, and in the remaining 23 states at all. While the vision to achieve employment and rural development is seemingly well-intentioned, the authors wonder about the fate of returnee workers in rural districts that have been left out. We studied Beed, located in the ‘high-performing’ state of Maharashtra.

Beed, like other Marathwada districts, is characterised by a severe drought that strikes once every few years, making agriculture unfeasible, especially for those who do not own large farmlands. It has also seen 96 reported farmer suicides since the beginning of the lockdown. Almost a third of the population migrates to the ‘sugar belt’ districts in Maharashtra during the sugarcane harvest period to work as cane-cutters. A middleman ‘mukkadam’ hires one couple as one unit, paying them Rs 250 per tonne on average. In one season, the couple is expected to cut 300-400 tonnes of sugarcane, earning around Rs 80,000 for six months of daily labour.

This seasonal employment, from October to March, is often the only annual income for these cane-cutters. Many women also undergo hysterectomies to avoid a menstrual cycle from setting them back during these six months, as the contractor cuts their pay if they take a break during work. This exploitation has been a reality in Beed for a while now. The pandemic has only made things worse.

Beed has seen the return of over 2.5 lakh migrant workers in the last few months, the highest in Maharashtra and significantly higher than the criteria set for the GKRA. Seasonal employment had already ended in March, with the start of the lockdown. Additionally, those migrants who left for cities like Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad have also returned. Both clusters now face a crippling lack of employment opportunities in their home district. Consequently, the demand for MGNREGS works in Maharashtra witnessed a 75% spike in demand within the span of a month from April to May.

This rise in demand can have a dual effect. First, on the rural agrarian labourers, including the cane-cutters, for whom MGNREGS was launched in the first place. During summer, agricultural jobs dry up and MGNREGS becomes essential for them. If the rise in demand is not met with an adequate rise in MGNREGS opportunities, they might lose out to the younger and physically stronger workers that have returned from the city. The second effect is on these city-returned migrants, who are semi-skilled or skilled workers, and for whom the MGNREGS jobs are inferior in both skillset and pay grade. Therefore, shifting the burden of the increased demand for employment onto MGNREGS could cost both clusters of migrants.

This is why the GKRA is more likely to be a better fit for them, as it aspires to match skills to jobs. An excess in demand for employment and an incredibly low supply of work makes one wonder why a district like Beed was left out of the scheme. Although the six states selected for the launch of GKRA are ‘Empowered Action Group’ states that have traditionally been low-performing, if the qualifying criteria were simply the quantum of returnee migrants, a district like Beed deserves equal attention. Considering Maharshtra’s Covid-19 statistics, it is safe to assume that many migrant workers will stay put in their home districts for the coming months.

But, would including Beed and other such districts under the PM-GKRA solve the problem? Some questions remain unanswered. The wage paid to these workers is unclear. Will it be the minimum wage, Rs 202 (recently raised by Rs 20), as under MGNREGS, or will it be higher, considering the workers earned Rs 500-600 a day in the city? Secondly, if they wait for success in 116 districts and then launch the scheme in others, that would be after 125 days (four months), or seven months into the pandemic — a long wait for people who are in dire need of an income. Finally, the fact that the scheme is being implemented through Common Service Centres (CSCs), which have visible levels of implementation obstacles and lack of accountability, makes the problem more complex.

Hence, while launching a scheme close to the MGNREGS formula might seem like some relief for returning migrants, in reality, Beed’s case highlights that the scheme is poorly thought-out, with little consideration of the fact that there are areas apart from the included ‘aspirational districts’ which witness a high number of unemployed returnees. We suggest that the inclusion/exclusion criteria be set solely on the basis of existing employment opportunities and the number of returnees, and each district be evaluated independently so that districts like Beed do not lose out on benefits under the garb of being in ‘high-performing’ states.

(The writers are post-graduate students at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru)

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Published 14 July 2020, 17:39 IST

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