Can MGNREGA cushion the COVID-19 lockdown blow for Moradabad’s returning villagers

There is a sharp rise in demand for work under MGNREGA in Moradabad and other districts of the state

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 24 July 2020
The district administration is looking for options where it can accommodate as many laborers as possible. Photo: Moyna

A kuchcha (unmetalled) road amid crop land was being widened when this correspondent reached Pahadpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district. Some 102 workers were at it, trying to wrap for the day, amid sweltering heat.

Not a great prospect, but such works undertaken through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have come as a boon for many in these trying times of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The job scheme once mocked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was now supposed to spur economic activity as well as cushion the blow for returning migrant workers.

Were we seeing that in action? Did any of you leave the village and have now returned? Some 21 hands shot up — hands now toiling on the winding road connecting two villages, but which were once driving the Great Indian boom story in big cities. 

The countrywide lockdown to curb COVID-19 dried up their sources of income and forced them to return home, changing the dynamics of MGNREGA in the process.

How do migrants look at it

Rajesh Bhagwendra sold fruits at Delhi’s Yamuna Vihar until the lockdown made him stop abruptly. Ensuring food for a five-member family and money for rent soon proved unattainable and the 45-year-old left the national capital. He now wishes he could find a proper source of livelihood at the village so that he doesn't have to return to the chaotic city life.

Sunny Kumar, an 18-year-old from Namaini Gaddi village who vended fruit juice in Zirakpur, a satellite of Chandigarh, said:

I was locked in single rented room without any work or income and had to pay rent. I decided to leave for the village. It took nine days to reach the village, but it was big respite.

Kumar began work on deepening a pond in his village. He now feels it is better to work on something that benefits his own village and also ensures an income for him.

There are many like Bhagwendra and Kumar who experienced hardships in the recent past because of their choice to go to cities and ensure a better livelihood for themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, crushed their dreams and made their futures uncertain.

They feel MGNREGA can rescue them from one of the biggest crises they have experienced. They will not starve or be forced to go back to cities if they keep receiving work under MGNREGA, they said.

How officials are tackling a surge in demand

There was a sharp rise in demand for work under MGNREGA in Moradabad and other districts of UP, similar to other parts of the country.

Increase in demand under MGNREGA: Comparison between 2019-20 and 2020-21

Source: MGNREGA website

Officials have rushed to explore opportunities to meet the demand surge: From widening roads to deepening ponds, the district administration has looked for options to accommodate as many workers as possible.

Usually, bigger projects are prioritised to generate more person-days of work; but now authorities are looking at even smaller projects in horticulture and public works. They are yet to start though, said Dinesh Kumar, additional programme officer for MGNREGA in Moradabad.

“We are devising new opportunities in different schemes including plantation, making vermin compost and gardening,” District Horticulture Official (DHO) Sunil Kumar told Down To Earth.

While this was not new, officials have kept the increased demand in mind while planning projects this time. “Earlier we provided half the cost of materials in gardening, but this time we have offered to pay laborers’ costs as well,” he added.

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