Nuapada loved MGNREGA amid COVID-19 lockdown; what happened next?

Villagers who benefitted earlier shy away from jobs progamme as unpaid dues pile up since October 2020

By Ajit Panda
Published: Tuesday 20 April 2021
Lockdown saviour MGNREGA losing appeal in Odisha’s Nuapada
Workers are disenchanted with MGNREGA across Nuapada's villages due to non-payment of wages since October 2020. Photo: Moyna / CSE Workers are disenchanted with MGNREGA across Nuapada's villages due to non-payment of wages since October 2020. Photo: Moyna / CSE

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared an India-wide lockdown March 24, 2020 millions of migrant families were forced to scamper back home. While the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was taking lives, what about livelihoods? That was the big question. A large part of the answer lay in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

A year later, this reporter travelled to Odisha’s Nuapada district to find out how India’s flagship jobs programme was put to use and was surprised.

Manmohan Sabar is from Bargaon village of Khariar block in Odisha’s Nuapada district. His main source of livelihood during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in 2020 was MGNREGA.

“I never migrate out of the district. I always prefer to work here,” he says. According to him, unlike previous years and the current year, MGNREGA was a boon during the lockdown last year.

Sabar says he earned Rs 10,000 in a single month during lockdown by working under MGNREGA, that was implemented by the forest department in his village forest. He and his wife also worked on a tank improvement project implemented by the village panchayat.

“Things however haven’t been the same this year,” he adds.

Sabar and five other fellow villagers worked for about two weeks on a tank improvement project under MGNREGA in the village in January. One-third of the wages were paid to them after two-and-a-half months.

“We had dug 84 pits of 100 square feet each and our dues were Rs 50,400. But the wage amount released March 31 was only Rs 14,460. We are poor people. It is difficult for us to work if payment is delayed,” Sabar, who has got Rs 3,640 in his share of released wage, says.

He is a marginal farmer with less than two acres of unirrigated land. He has five members in his family. If the rainfall is good, he manages to produce rice from his land for a year’s consumption.

“The yield was better last kharif due to good rainfall. I got 18 quintals of paddy that fulfilled my whole year’s need of rice,” Sabar says. For other expenses, he depends on wage work available in the village or nearby.

Sabar knows he cannot get wage work in his panchayat on a regular basis. Hence, he often goes to other places of the district as well.

“I have learnt tar mixing and spreading work, so I go to those places where tar road construction is being carried out. Last year, I worked for a week-and-a-half in a road construction project in Sinapali block and earned Rs 4,000,” Sabar said.

The work site is 40 km away from Sabar’s village, so he temporarily shifted there for that period. He did not feel jobless during lockdown last year till October, because work under MGNREGA was available and wages were released in time.

But now, I will not work under MGNREGA until my pending dues are cleared,” he says.

Kailash Nag of Litiguda Panchayat is a migrant worker.

“I always migrate after the end of kharif operations, because I cannot get regular employment in my village. MGNREGA during April-May last year was an exception. Wages were paid within 15 days. But things changed October onwards. The availability of work as well as wages got delayed. I am skilled in scaffolding work, which pays more — about Rs 500 per day. But such work is not available in my area. Migration is thus a better alternative for me,” he says.

Kailash and his co-workers had faced a lot of difficulties during lockdown at his work site in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh last year but was forced to migrate to the same place again in January.

Sukru Sabar, a partially blind man of Bendrabahal village, has worked for over two weeks on a tank development project under MGNREGA during the first half of January. But he is yet to be paid his wages of Rs 7,400.

“What shall I eat if I am not paid wages in time?” he asks. Sukru is unable to repair his mud house damaged in last year’s rain.

Raidhar Hans of Chachrabhata village under Khasbahal Panchayat worked on a road construction project undertaken through MGNREGA in January. “We were three people and our dues were Rs 28,000, but we have received only Rs 10,500,” Raidhar says.

Chitrasen Deep of Sirli village of Nagpada Panchayat in Boden block of the district is averse to MGNREGA. “I worked for two weeks in June 2020 on a MGNREGA project. The wage paid after two months was only half of my dues. Instead of waiting for the remaining amount to be paid, I migrated to Vijayawada. There, I am earning Rs 400-500 per day,” he says.

Loss of faith

Payment of wages was regular during the lockdown period up to July last year. However, delay became the norm after that, which discouraged labourers. Most of them migrated again to their respective employers.

The official website of MGNREGA shows that the outstanding wages of workers (for about 900 person days) of Bargaon Panchayat, who have worked between January 1 and 19, amounts to above Rs 2.72 lakh. This is the same across the district.

The outstanding amount of wages of 644 workers of Sialati Panchayat of Komna block is Rs 5.83 lakh for the last financial year, the highest in Komna block. The dues for Komna and Thikpali panchayats of this block are Rs 5.47 and 5 lakhs respectively for 571 and 608 transactions.

According to information available on the MGNREGA website, fund transfer orders (FTO) for the release of wages to the tune of about Rs 5 crore to workers have already been generated but wages are yet to be credited. This does not include the dues of work done that are yet to be calculated and FTOs generated online for wage payment.

According to the website, the current number of unskilled labour engaged according to the e-muster roll in the district is 12,392. This number in July last year was 56,000.

As the trend of timely payment declined after July, the labour turnout also decreased. At the end of March, the non-paid wages in the district stood at about Rs 16 crore, outstanding since January 2.

After the release of funds in the last part of March, wages above Rs 5 crore are still pending. “We face the wrath of workers due to such delay in wage payment. What is notable is that most workers, who would have stayed here to work, prefer migration under distress condition,” field workers of the district say. 

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