This summer, as millions of migrants returned to their villages amid a rise in Covid cases, another chart climbed steadily: the number of households enrolled under the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
Consider this: From April to August, over 83 lakh additional households or 1.6 crore persons joined the NREGA labour force by getting job cards, taking the number of families under the scheme to an all-time high of 14.36 crore.
While the demand for unskilled work under NREGS had been steadily rising in recent years amid the economic slowdown, it soared to unprecedented levels during the pandemic.
Data show 5.79 crore households availed NREGS between April 1 and September 10 during the current financial year — the highest since the scheme was launched on February 2, 2006.
Behind these numbers lie the story of how NREGA has emerged as a safety net for lakhs of households across the country at a time of deep social and economic distress amid the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns.
According to government estimates, more than 67 lakh migrants have returned to 116 districts across six states — Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha — where the Centre had launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan.
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But the districts of West Bengal — which saw 20 lakh migrants returning home, according to the state government’s estimates — were not part of GKRA.
The state, however, witnessed a huge demand for NREGA, with 6.8 lakh new jobs cards, the third highest after UP (21 lakh) and Bihar (11 lakh).
Of the top 5 districts in the country for households working under NREGA, four are in West Bengal — Purba Bardhaman, Hooghly, Paschim Medinipur, 24 Parganas South and Villupuram, the only non-Bengal district in the top 5.
An analysis of data for 690 districts shows that of the Top 10 districts that saw an increase of over 1 lakh in the number of households that availed NREGA this year in June (the month when demand for NREGA is traditionally the highest), eight are in Bengal. These are: Hooghly, Purba Bardhaman, Paschim Medinipur, 24 Parganas South, Bankura, Birbhum, Coochbehar and Murshidabad. Bhilwara (Rajasthan) at No 8 and Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh) at No 9 are the only two non-Bengal districts in the list.
The unprecedented demand in NREGA across India has led to the utilisation of 67 per cent of the entire fiscal’s labour budget of Rs 292.79 crore with half the financial year still left.
While NREGA has served to provide jobs, the implementation of the scheme faces several challenges. For instance, despite a hike of NREGS wage across states, there have been complaints of workers not being paid the notified rate in several states. Besides, there is worry that the quota of 100 days of employment in a financial year that the job scheme guarantees will fast run out, leaving many families with little security in the remaining months of the year.
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