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

DTE ground report finds pending wages and non-commissioning of work for over a year making it hard for workers to survive

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Tuesday 18 April 2023
45-year-old Jaygun Bibi is breaking her Ramzan fasts with just water and a soaked rice dish this year. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware __

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

The central government has withheld funds for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers in West Bengal for over a year now. The workers are stuck in the tussle between the state and central governments and continue to struggle to feed themselves and their families. 

The central government on December 21, 2021 invoked the Section 27 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGREGA) and suddenly stopped funds for the scheme. Additionally, it stopped commissioning work under the Act in June 2022.

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

The media had attributed the freeze to the multiple alleged complaints of corruption in scheme implementation. However, the decision 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 West Bengal for 2023-24 under the scheme, keeping workers in a state of constant worry about their survival. Many have not received their wages due from 2021.

Some have joined ongoing protests in New Delhi that began in February 2023, demanding their dues and rights for guaranteed work.

MGNREGS, introduced in 2005, has served as a lifeline for rural workers whose livelihood entirely depend on it. Those registered can demand up to 100 days’ work with an average income of Rs 213 daily. 

The lack of funds have resulted in a food crisis for many in the state. Down To Earth (DTE) visited seven villages across Purulia and Bankura districts to understand the plight of these workers. 

Read more: Mandatory digital attendance for MGNREGS will destroy it, activists warn

This year is the first time 45-year-old Jaygun Bibi is breaking her daily 15-hour Ramzan fast with water and maadbhat, a simple dish of soaked rice in salt water. 

The villager from Belma in Purulia has no money for proper iftar food, she told DTE. “We usually consume dates to break the fast, followed by water and other delicacies. But the kitchen storage is empty for the first time in years. Eid is around the corner and we have no reason for festivities,” she said. 

MGNREGS work ensured regular income for Bibi, who now has to take to daily wage work. Now, she barely earns Rs 150 a day, if she gets any work at all. “I barely find work seven days in a month. The income is insufficient for a family of four to survive,” she said. 

Santosh Karbarto is another villager in Belma who is suffering the same fate. “Fish, eggs and meat are a staple in our diet. No money and no work means daily nutrition has taken a hit. I have not had any meat for the past 11 months,” he said.

Village children were being fed fish from dirty ponds and even gutters, said the 58-year-old. “There is no way we can afford to fulfil our dietary requirements any more,” he added.

No funds have resulted in a food crisis for many workers in West Bengal. Photo: 
Himanshu Nitnaware

No funds have resulted in a food crisis for many workers in West Bengal. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware

About 75 kilometres away in Nadia village in Purulia, Rumpa Mahato is waiting to receive Rs 13,380 of her pending wages from MGNREGS.

“The central government has not released funds and my money has been stuck in the process. I am not able to take care of my children, Subajit (11) and Puma (6). With no money, their morning milk consumption has been cut off. Also, fruits, dry fruits and other forms of nutrition have disappeared from their diet,” she said. 

Read more: Will India officially be poverty free in 2023?

Mahato said the family of four could hardly survive hand-to-mouth with irregular work as a daily wager. “The government’s public distribution system provides five kilogrammes of rice every month. We are grateful that at least some food is available for survival,” she added. 

Lack of nutrition is taking a toll on the villagers’ health. Bharati Mahato from Manguria village in Purulia said her husband died on April 7, 2023 after prolonged weakness. 

“My husband was under a lot of stress and was suffering from depression after MGNREGA work stopped. He was the only earning member of the family of six people. We could not even afford to take him to a doctor to get treatment or get him better food so he would stay strong,” Mahato said.

His condition kept deteriorating and resulted in his death, she said. “How will my family survive without its sole breadwinner?” Mahato asked.

As per the Act, the workers should get work as demanded, said activist Nikhil Dey, while speaking with DTE

Read more: How to make Budget discussions in Parliament more fruitful

“Rural workers registered under the scheme are mandated to get work under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Article recognises the right to work as a fundamental right, which is being violated daily. These workers have the right to seek work for 100 days and earn a dignified income,” said Dey. 

The law also enables these workers to seek unemployment allowance and compensation for delayed wages for each passing day without work. “The central government is not following the rules, which is creating a crisis across the state and the country,” he added.

NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a non-profit working for the rights of the workers, has written a letter to the Union Ministry of Rural Development. The body has demanded that the ministry release pending funds immediately to bring relief to the workers.

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

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