Most men, teenage boys left their family behind to find work in other cities after Centre freezed funds to the rural employment scheme
This is a ground report from seven villages in Purulia and Bankura districts in West Bengal.
The Centre withholding funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in West Bengal has killed one of its core objectives — stemming migration. A ground visit by Down To Earth found that many teenage boys and men have left their villages in search of work.
The sudden funds freeze has jeopardised the fates of 13.2 million MGNREGS workers as the Centre owed Rs 7,500 crore to the state, of which Rs 2,762 crore was for wages. No labour budget has been approved for the state under the scheme in the Union Budget 2023-24 either.
Numerous rural families dependent on the scheme have been uprooted. Hiru Rajak, a worker from Belma village in Purulia district, said that his two sons, aged 17 and 16, had to move to Jharkhand and Chennai to find work.
“We have no money for food or repairing the leaking roof of our house. All our savings were exhausted during the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Just when we expected the situation to improve, MGNREGS work took a hit,” he said. There was no option but to ask his underage sons to find some employment.
Anil Bawri (50) and his wife Hulan live alone in Babupara village of Bankura district. They have three sons Sikantu (26), Sukhdev (30) and Rajiv (28). All three of them have left their homes as there was no work available.
All three children of Anil Bawri and Hulan have had to move away in search for work. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware
“They all work in different states for a meagre earning of Rs 150-200 per day. They are constantly on the move working in the bakery industry and visit once a year,” Bawri told Down To Earth (DTE).
Bawri now works in a brick kiln to survive, but the wages were not enough. “The children were forced to migrate after our debts started piling up. Even the grocery shops stopped giving us any further credit,” he added.
Almost every household in the seven villages across Purulia and Bankura districts had a similar story.
Ghosergram village in Bankura has 34 settlements. Thirteen people returned home during the lockdown. “Six stayed back in the village even after the restrictions ended. Like me, they do not wish to move out of the village for work,” said Durgadas Murmu, a 30-year-old daily wager.
Murmu earned a living cutting grass in Chennai before COVID-19 struck. Living away was tough and language barriers made it worse. “But if the MGNREGS work does not resume, I will have no option but move out again,” he said.
The villagers have migrated as far as Chennai, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to find better livelihood opportunities.
Women in villages also relayed instances where their husbands had to move out alone for the first time.
Bhadu Mahato (43) from Manguria village in Purulia said her husband and sons have migrated to Chhattisgarh and Mumbai. “The have had to go away for the first time. I do not know where they are sleeping or how they are feeding themselves in an unknown city,” she said.
Most houses in Nadia village, Purulia only have women residents. “We have only about six men left in the village. All others have migrated in search of work,” said Rumpa Mahato, a villager.
Women look for work across the river in the village, she said. “Once the monsoon arrives, even this opportunity will be gone as the river swells. We will not be able to feed ourselves if we don’t find other work or our husbands are unable to send us money,” Mahato said.
Proditpto Biswas, district panchayat and rural development officer, Purulia said, “There are 400,000 million active workers in the district and all are unemployed. The total pending wages to date stand to Rs 121 crores.”
“We have not received any money from the central government and there is no provision with the state government to pay these pending wages,” Biswas said, adding the West Bengal government is anticipating funds from the Centre.
The situation is deteriorating daily in the district, he said. “About 70 per cent of the income of these workers depends on MGNREGS. After the work stopped, a massive number of people migrated to make ends meet,” he added.
Biswas’s comments came from field visits to these villages. “When officials visit workers’ homes to link their Aadhaar cards with bank accounts, the majority of them are unavailable and it is informed that they have migrated to other states,” he said.
Thousands of people being unemployed is a massive crisis and can lead to a law and order situation, the district panchayat said.
“Agitations and roadblocks by workers have increased. Other MGNREGS works such as maintenance of plantations and asset maintenance such as piggery, poultry and farm ponds have all gone for a toss,” Biswas further said.
The annual plantation of 600,000 saplings through MGNREGS has not taken place for over a year. “About 5,000 projects of water conservation have not happened either. Water harvesting and conservation are meant for agriculture irrigation, which may directly affect farmers,” he said.
Biswas said that convergence schemes that include horticulture helped MGNREGS workers. “The absence of these schemes has also reduced existing income sources and minimum wages. Many have been pushed into chronic poverty,” he said.
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