In rural West Bengal, debts mount and socioeconomic fabric collapses in absence of MGNREGS

Local economy hangs by a thread as residents desperately demand revival of the rural employment scheme

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 28 March 2024
In the absence of alternative employment opportunities, many inhabitants of rural West Bengal are forced to borrow money to meet their basic needs, pushing them into a vicious cycle of debt from which escape seems increasingly elusive. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE

Villagers in Murshidabad district in West Bengal once had no major liabilities or debts to repay in their lives. But the absence of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is casting a long shadow on their lives now. The agrarian populace is now grappling with financial distress, exacerbating the already precarious socio-economic conditions prevalent in the region.

The rural employment scheme, formerly a vital support system for millions in the state, ground to a halt approximately two years ago over a funding dispute between the central and state governments. The central government stopped commissioning work in the state and no labour budget has been approved for the scheme in the last two years. 

The decision has impacted at least 13.2 million MGNREGS workers. The vulnerable population is now abandoned and struggling. In the absence of alternative employment opportunities, many rural inhabitants are forced to borrow money to meet their basic needs, pushing them into a vicious cycle of debt from which escape seems increasingly elusive.

Read more: Budget 2023-24: Fund allocated for MGNREGA can provide just 17 days of work

Parts of West Bengal are witnessing the emergence of numerous ‘ghost villages’ as able-bodied individuals depart in search of any available work. The ones who have migrated are lamenting the loss of their identity and dignity, while those who remain are struggling to meet their basic needs. Down To Earth (DTE) conducted visits to these regions to assess the impact.

The flagship welfare programme was aimed at providing livelihood security to rural households through guaranteed wage employment. Now, the plight of rural West Bengal seems to have been relegated to the periphery of political discourse.

Almost every resident interviewed by DTE in villages across Jalangi, Raninagar and Akhriganj Panchayat Samiti stated the deprivation of 100 days’ assured work and non-payment of due wages has not only increased their debt but also had a direct impact on their diet and nutrition.

Nazimuddin Mondal (50) said agricultural activities alone fail to provide a stable source of income in the hinterlands of the state. “Every villager received work for about 80-100 days under the scheme, which offered a stable source of income. While agriculture provided income during the cropping season, during dry spells, we accessed work from MGNREGS to sustain ourselves,” he said.

Nazimuddin Mondal (R) from Bidupur colony, Jalangi. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE

Nazimuddin Mondal (R) from Bidupur colony, Jalangi. Photo: KA Shreya / CSE

The villager from Bidupur colony stated that the loss of access to employment from MGNREGS has directly reduced income by 50 per cent. “But the expenses of school, health and food have not reduced. They have only increased over the years,” he said.

About 90 days of MGNREGS work at the rate of Rs 180 per day fetched villagers Rs 16,200, enough to sustain their expenses. The scheme offered a reliable safety net, the residents claim.

While the central government stopped funding in December 2021, residents of Murshidabad district claim they have been facing hardships since 2019 as they have been deprived of wages and employment without any explanation from the state or central government.

Read more: Dying for ration: Denied full benefits, 62-year-old widow eats a meal a day to survive

To keep up with the expenses, many villagers have had to borrow large sums they are finding difficult to repay in the absence of stable work. With limited access to formal credit facilities, they often turn to local moneylenders who exploit their vulnerability by charging exorbitant interest rates, plunging them deeper into indebtedness.

“I have taken out a loan of Rs 70,000 and have to pay monthly installments of Rs 2,600 to repay the amount. I drive public transport or find any odd low-paying job to ensure the installments are paid,” Mondal added.

The loans have only increased hardships for villagers, as they are being forced to choose to work at lower pay than the average to be able to ensure the monthly installment does not lapse.

Working in a brick kiln for low pay in the vicinity or taking up work in neighbouring districts has become a norm, Atikul Shaikh from Chorkishnupur said. “I often find work in a neighbouring district that requires spending about Rs 100-200 on travel per day. After deducting food and transport expenses, I hardly have about Rs 100 earned for that day,” he said.

Around 70-80 per cent of villagers of working age have moved to other cities or states in search of better opportunities. Many of them have even relocated with their families. These debts will only increase over time, the villagers fear, as festivities, marriages and social commitments require additional money.

“We have limited wedding expenses and have no money to buy clothes during festival seasons. The loss of income from MGNREGS has severely affected our lifestyle,” said Rijan Shaikh from Sarkarpura village.

Read more: Stark difference: MGNREGS demand in West Bengal plummets on paper, but villagers say desperate for work

Mona Lisa Mondal, a graduate student from the same village, said her father sold 0.24 hectares of land for her brother’s education. “He is studying medicine to become a doctor in Canada. My father may have to sell the remaining 0.16 hectares for my higher education and marriage,” she said.

To make matters worse, villagers claim that declining groundwater levels and unpredictable rainfall patterns are forcing farmers to plant fewer crops. The fields, once teeming with activity, now lie fallow, a testament to the dwindling prospects of agriculture in the face of erratic weather patterns and diminishing returns.

Earlier, farmers were able to plant three crops a year—wheat, rice and jute. Now the situation has changed to only wheat and rice. The reason is also due to a lack of farm labour, as the majority of them have migrated to other states in search of work.

“The residents have entered into a vicious cycle. There cannot be efficient farming without labour and there are hardly any opportunities due to a lack of economic and infrastructural development, hence, people migrate away,” said Shaikh.

The declaration of a wheat holiday for two years in West Bengal due to a fungal disease called wheat blast in Bangladesh in 2016 also accelerated the migration in the region.

Read more: How MGNREGA water conservation project turned a Rajasthan district into an Oasis

Rintu Mondal, a 30-year-old resident of Sarkarpura, said no farmer could cultivate wheat and the situation pushed the already struggling farm labourers to move out of the villages.

“The villagers desperately need a revival of MGNREGS to restore financial stability and stop migration. The troubling aspect is that there is never a response on why the wages and work were stopped,” he said.

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