Absence of MGNREGS work take a toll on festivities, medical care and nutrition intake in rural West Bengal

Villagers report grappling to make ends meet due to loss of guaranteed employment
MGNREGS operations came to a grinding halt in many villages across the state around two years ago. Most men who can work have migrated to other states in search of employment. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE
MGNREGS operations came to a grinding halt in many villages across the state around two years ago. Most men who can work have migrated to other states in search of employment. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE

West Bengal’s rural communities are grappling with a harsh reality — the absence of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has impacted not just livelihoods but also festivities, healthcare and nutrition. While numerous regions have transformed into ’ghost villages’ due to the majority of residents migrating in search of employment, those who remain are grappling to even make ends meet.

MGNREGS operations came to a grinding halt in many villages across the state around two years ago. Down To Earth (DTE) visited the region and discovered that the lack of guaranteed employment opportunities has worsened the already difficult economic circumstances, leaving residents struggling with uncertainty and despair.

The programme was designed to provide guaranteed employment to rural households for 100 days of work on public projects at fixed wages. In its absence, almost all men who can work have been forced to migrate. 

With limited income, families are forced to scale back celebrations during festivals, nutrition has been severely impacted and healthcare is taking a hit. Villagers, especially the sick and the elderly, also report severe anxiety, lamenting the loss of a life of dignity and security.

It has been over a year since Muktina Bibi (26) from Bidupur colony in Jalangi village, Murshidabad district, West Bengal, last saw her husband.

Her husband, Nawab Ali Biswas, has moved to Kerala in search of better job prospects and only visits once a year. “We haven’t celebrated Eid together for two years now. It looks like he won’t be able to make it for the festival this year,” she told DTE

Biswas’s MGNREGS wages from two years ago are still pending and there hasn’t been any work since the central government suddenly invoked Section 27 of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and stopped funds for the scheme in December 2021. 

Bibi started a small food business about two years ago. “I don’t make enough to support my husband and I, my mother-in-law and six-year-old daughter,” she said. 

“About 30 years ago, my mother-in-law, Salima Bibi, experienced paralysis in her lower body. Her medical bills amount to roughly Rs 5,000 per month. We were able to cover these expenses through income earned from MGNREGS work and as farm labourers,” she said.

With the stable and dependable income source from MGNREGS now absent, her husband had no option but to seek employment outside the state, she added. 

Muktina initiated her food business to cover the educational costs for her daughter and medical expenses for her mother-in-law. 

“I sell fritters and cooked dal (lentils), generating approximately Rs 1,000 in daily sales, resulting in a profit of around Rs 200,” she explained. 

Muktina Bibi from Jalangi village, Murshidbad district in West Bengal now sells fritters and dal to eke out a living. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE

But she is still struggling to cover expenses, Salima told DTE. “I’m unable to maintain a regular dosage of medicine. I buy medication as circumstances allow, leading to weeks of pain and movement difficulties,” she explained.

Bahar Ali Biswas, another resident, is facing similar health issues. “At 60 years old, I am unable to find work due to poor health and age. Treating my body aches, which the doctor attributes to weakened bones, has become increasingly challenging,” he expressed.

Elderly residents throughout the neighbourhood lamented the loss of their opportunity to earn income through MGNREGS. The inability to secure employment directly impacted their health and access to food, they pointed out.

“We rarely manage to eat three meals a day now. Our portions and frequency of meals have decreased. We no longer have the luxury of consuming fish, chicken, or meat as we used to,” remarked Montu Mondal from Sarkarpura village, located approximately a kilometre away from Bidupur colony.

Many villagers are surviving on just a meal a day, Mondal said. While the food from the Public Distribution System (PDS) does provide some relief, residents claim that it only lasts for a couple of weeks.

Villagers emphasised that the two-year period of unpaid wages and cessation of work has significantly impacted their mental well-being. The financial strain has led to constant anxiety about money and feelings of depression.

“There’s no peace of mind like there was about three years ago,” Mondal stated. ”We urgently require the restart of the MGNREGS programme to alleviate economic concerns, restore our dignity and regain peace of mind.”

A DTE report from April 2023 highlighted how the lack of MGNREGS work in Purulia and Bankura districts in West Bengal led to people neglecting medical needs due to a lack of funds for treatment and proper nutrition, which could  exacerbate existing health issues and lead to more severe complications.

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