Covid-19 lockdown 2.0: Centre gears up for biggest surge in demand for jobs under MGNREGS

Covid-19 lockdown 2.0: Centre gears up for biggest surge in demand for jobs under MGNREGS

As tens and thousands of daily wage workers have flocked back to their home states amid the Covid-19 lockdown, the Centre is gearing up for a surge in demand for jobs in the employment scheme MGNREGS.

During fiscal 2020-21, the government made an initial provision for 280.76 crore persondays of work – the highest ever – to cater to jobless workers after the closure of many business establishments due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) generated 276.76 crore persondays, which was attributed largely due to drought in vast stretches in India. This year, despite the predictions of a normal monsoon, the Union rural development ministry has arranged for more MGNREGS work.

Between fiscal 2016-17 and fiscal 2018-19, the world’s largest job guarantee scheme generated 256.56 crore, 231.31 core and 220.93 crore persondays of work, respectively.

The higher persondays – or people demanding more jobs – may also push the government to inject more money into the scheme as it has to pay higher per capita wages due to an upward revision of wages from April 1.

The Centre has made an upward hike of between Rs 13 and Rs 34, the highest in the past six years. Last year, 10 states saw a zero hike and in one case, the wage rate was lowered. The new wages will help 12.8 crore MGNREGS workers.

“It is clear that the government will require to pump in more funds as a huge section of the Indian workforce will see MGNREGS as their lifeline in this situation,” said Himangshu, an economist at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Rural development minister Narendra Singh Tomar reviewed all flagship schemes of his ministry on Thursday, and also took into account the release of Rs 7300 crore under MGNREGS to clear pending dues of fiscal 2019-20 and to meet the wage dues for the first fortnight of 2020-21.

Tomar advised his ministry to assist 40 lakh beneficiaries of the rural housing scheme (PMAYG), who have received up to the third instalment of funds, to help them quickly complete their houses. The Centre has released Rs 800.63 crore to the states out of the budget of Rs.19,500 crore.

But as the focus remains sharply on MGNREGS, which provides employment in distress, the Centre has allowed rural jobs to resume from April 20 outside the Covid-19 hot spots.

Officials in the rural ministry indicated big construction projects that involve a large number of workers might be avoided for some time to adhere to social distancing rules, and smaller projects, such as building farm ponds, cattle shed or houses under PMAYG, will be pushed.

But as many workers may not be willing to come to work while ignoring health risks, economist Reetika Khera said the government should consider giving some wages even if they sit at home.

“We also have to bear in mind that like us, MGNREGS workers will be nervous about joining works that involve gatherings. This will be an impediment to claiming their legal right. In this situation, the government should give 10 days of wages to every MGNREGS workers for three months. Further, the government must fix the issue of failed and diverted payments arising due to the Aadhaar-payment bridge system.”

Meanwhile, the Centre has identified a host of best rural Indian practices and the Union panchayeti raj ministry is trying to see if other states replicate some of these models. These models include a postman taking micro-ATM to villages to provide cash at the doorstep amid the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh’s Siddharth Nagar or villagers in a Kerala stitching and distributing about 18 lakh cotton masks through 300 tailoring units, while 21 micro firms prepared 2,700 litres of sanitiser.

In Meerut, more than 2,800 sanitation workers were provided masks, sanitisers, soaps and gloves to help them in their daily duty of keeping villages clean. In Dadra and Nagar Haveli, daily meals are provided to the needy and stray cattle and animals, according to an official communication.

The Union Territory has distributed more than 130,000 hand sanitisers and 17,000 masks free of cost in rural areas. Its gram panchayats are distributing handbills and pamphlets to create awareness among the public. The communique further said all high-rise building lifts are being sanitised and younger people are advised to let only senior citizens, pregnant women and disabled people use elevators.

The rural panchayat network in Andhra Pradesh has focused on door-to-door survey and distribution of masks. The state has set a target of distributing about 16 crore masks while it undertakes the third round of door-to-door survey, according to the government communication.

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