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

Central government’s freeze on funds for rural employment scheme has completely degraded villagers’ living conditions

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Thursday 20 April 2023
Down To Earth visited villages in Purulia and Bankura districts of West Bengal and witnessed the pitiful condition of many wearing tattered and threadbare clothes. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware__

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

The rural population in West Bengalis is in a deep financial struggle following a freeze on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) funds by the central government for over a year. No labour budget was approved for the state for the Union Budget 2023-24 under the scheme. 

The Centre abruptly stopped funds for the scheme in 2021 and stopped commissioning work in June 2022. It cited corruption and irregularities in the state and invoked Section 27 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005. The section enabled it to “order stoppage of the release of funds to the scheme”. 

The central government blocked the payment of over Rs 7,500 crore of funds to West Bengal for “non-compliance of directives”. Of this amount, the wage liability is over Rs 2,762 crore.

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

The funds’ freeze is lying heavy on the lives of over 13 million MGNREGS workers in the state, many of whom are awaiting their wages from 2021. Anuradha Mahato is one such villager from Nadia village in Manbazar-I block of Purulia district in West Bengal. 

Down To Earth visited villages in Purulia and Bankura districts of West Bengal and witnessed the pitiful condition of many wearing tattered and threadbare clothes. Mahato, her husband and kids have not bought any new sarees or clothes since 2021.

“There’s barely any money to make ends meet, so there’s none to spare for clothes,” she said. 

MGNREGS serves as a lifeline for rural workers. The funds freeze by Centre has jeopardised their economic condition. Photo: Himanshu Nitnaware

Other villagers showed their worn-out clothing to this reporter as well, lamenting about their destitute conditions due to the lack of work and non-payment of wages. 

MGNREGS, introduced in 2005, serves as a lifeline for rural workers. Those registered can demand up to 100 days’ work with an average income of Rs 213 daily. 

Lack of work under the scheme means new clothing is a luxury many villagers can no longer afford. The women said they keep mending the same clothing by adding patches over the torn area. Several people now can not afford to spare money for thread and needles either. 

The festive season in 2022 was a gloomy time for 35-year-old Brindawan Bawri from Belma village in Purulia district, devoid of any festivities. Durga Pooja — the biggest festival in the region — along with Diwali was spent trying to earn two square meals.

Read more: MGNREGA protest crosses 40 days, activists seek legal aid for workers

“After the MGNREGS work stopped, I started looking for jobs as a daily wager or masonry work,” he said.

Work is now irregular for Bawri and the wages are inconsistent. There is no money for clothes, especially uniforms and education has taken a back seat. “My three children, Ritu, Abu and Samir, studying in classes VI, IV and II, have stopped going to school,” he added. 

“I have never faced such a crisis in my life. I even migrated to Chennai and Tatanagar for work. But the money I earned did not help to cover my living costs in another city and fill the stomachs of four people back home,” he added.

Sukurti Murmu from Bandardiha village in Bankura district is entirely dependent on gifts from relatives to clothe her children. “Some of them visited during the festival season and they offered clothing after taking pity on my financial condition,” she said. 

Kanchan Bawri from Babupara village in Bankura district said such conditions were unthinkable while he was getting work under MGNREGS. “The scheme was a life saver and even if we did not get the full 100 days of work, we could live a comfortable life,” he said. 

Even though 100 days’ work is mandated under the Act, villagers across the districts claimed each job card holder got just 30-40 days’ work yearly. 

“Even if my wife gets assigned a site for 30 days, together we contributed to 60 days of work in a year. This was enough to live our life without struggling for basic necessities. But the stopping of pending wages and work has had severe negative impacts on our lives,” Bawri said. 

Premchand, district coordinator of Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti (PBKMS), Bankura district, said the economic conditions of workers are degraded. They are unable to earn a livelihood and many are starving. “These workers have not had healthy food and adequate livelihood for more than a year,” he said.

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

Many MGNREGS workers do not even receive the total Rs 213 of their daily wage as about Rs 40 is taken by the officials who assigned work, claimed Premchand. “But the scheme is still a relief in many ways, which has been snatched from them,” he added.

The central government allotted a fund of Rs 60,000 crores for the scheme for the financial year 2023-24, excluding West Bengal. The budget will only fund work for 15 days for the active job card holders in the country — far less than the 100 mandated in MGNREGA. 

Anuradha Talwar, the state coordinator for PBKMS, said that the situation is going to worsen for the workers. “Petitions have been filed in the high court, but that has not given any relief. Only the immediate release of funds will help the workers,” she added.

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

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