Central funds freeze: MGNREGA workers in West Bengal trapped in vicious cycle of illness and poverty

Workers struggling to make ends meet, have had to put new and existing health issues aside    

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Monday 24 April 2023
Shibani Mahato cannot afford treatment for her tennaged son's mental health issues. He has had no medicines for over a year and his condition has worsened. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware__

This is a ground report from seven villages in Purulia and Bankura districts in West Bengal. 

Healthcare for millions dependent on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in West Bengal has taken a huge hit for over a year. Those struggling to make ends meet have had to put new and existing health issues aside after the Centre halted funds to the state for the scheme.  

The central government blocked funds for MGNREGS to the state on December 21, 2021 by invoking Section 27 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGREGA). No labour budget was approved for the state in the Union Budget 2023-24 under the scheme. 

Read more: No money to fix leaky roofs, MGNREGS workers in West Bengal fear upcoming monsoon

The Centre had alleged there were “irregularities” and “corruption” in implementing the scheme by the state government. However, the move is punishing the blameless workers for whom the scheme is a lifeline. 

Shanti Rajak (40) lives in Belma village in Purulia district, about 300 kilometres from Kolkata. Rajak lost her husband last year. 

Her husband was diagnosed with diabetes in 2021. “Patients with type-II diabetes need to keep their blood sugar under control with timely proper diet and medication. After MGNREGA work was stopped, our income became irregular, resulting in a shortage of food and other necessities,” she told Down To Earth (DTE)

Lack of proper nutrition and no money for treatment led to his death during the Durga Puja festival in 2022, Rajak added.

Hundreds across West Bengal are suffering like Rajak’s family. 

Bhadubala Sois from Manguria village has been unable to treat her father’s cataract. “Since the wages stopped, my family of five depends on a single person’s income. We can barely fill our stomachs,” she said.  

Her father requires surgery, which requires money for transport, medication and hospitalisation apart from the treatment cost. “For now, my father’s vision will have to suffer,” she said. 

Read more: Surviving on fish from gutter, rice: West Bengal workers bear brunt of Central freeze on MGNREGA funds

Shibani Mahato from Nadia village in Purulia is also in a tough situation. “My 16-year-old son has mental health issues. The treatment and medicines cost around Rs 25,000 per year, but I only get a monthly pension of Rs 1,000. It has become challenging to take care of him,” she said.

Mahato has not been able to provide treatment for her son since 2021. “He was showing some improvement earlier. But now, his behaviour has become more erratic and aggressive. My husband has left the village to find a job,” she added.

The 30-year-old mother sold her cattle to treat her son, but there’s nothing left to pawn anymore. “The MGNREGA job used to help me feed and treat my son,” she said.

Many others across Purulia and Bankura districts told DTE about their issues with their vision, hearing loss, infections and tumours that are untreated. Lack of medical help is worsening their situations, leaving them unfit for other work and keeping them in a vicious loop of poverty and illness. 

Pinky Madhi, a villager from Romadi said that her husband suffers from tuberculosis. “He cannot work as his health condition has worsened. We have two kids, five and three years old, respectively. Life has become difficult without MGNREGA,” she said.

Read more: Threadbare clothes, school drop outs due to lack of uniforms: West Bengal MGNREGA workers’ lives in tatters

Madhi works odd jobs as a domestic worker and other daily wage work in brick kilns that earn Rs 100-150 a day for seven days a month. 

Rural populations are being pushed towards chronic poverty and are also losing their families, said Anuradha Talwar, convener of Pashchim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti. 

“The central government is punishing the workers for their political vindication. There is no denying that corruption has taken place by the officers implementing the scheme. No action has been taken in penalising them. But the blameless workers are taking the hit,” she alleged.

This story is part of a series on the plight on MGNREGA workers in West Bengal. The first part can be found heresecond one here and the third one here

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