WITH OVER three-and-a-half lakh migrant workers expected to return to the state over the coming weeks in the aftermath of the Covid-driven nationwide lockdown, the Chhattisgarh government is focusing on developing quarantine infrastructure at the grassroots level and upscaling MNREGA-based employment.
Senior officials in the state government said that the key objective over the next few weeks will be to increase disposable income, especially in rural areas. Returing migrants who have been put up in panchayat-level quarantine centres are being asked if they are interested in MNREGA-based wage labour. Job cards are being created for those who are interested, said officials.
A senior official in the Panchayat and Rural Development department said a quarantine centre in every village in now a must. “We have given instructions that in every village, every panchayat, there should be a small quarantine centre. Any government building that is available in the village can be requisitioned for that purpose. It can be a school, it can be an angwanwadi, it could be anything. Not the panchayat bhawan (office) to begin with, because the panchayat bhawan is the centre of all activities. If we requisition that, all other work will stop.”
While Chhattisgarh has vast swathes of forest land, much of its crop land has a single crop cycle, held back by poor irrigation. This in turn has led to people leaving the state to work elsewhere. Since the nationwide lockdown however, migrant workers have started to return. According to state government assessments, fifty two thousand people have returned so far.
The key then, officials said, will be to ensure that these returnees, also have some methods to earn money once they return. “What we have also done is to ask our panchayat officials to ascertain from these people if they want to be engaged in wage labour after the 14-day quarantine period. Because many of these people may not have too much in the way of savings. So while they are now back home, they might have a problem. So panchayat officials will start ascertaining during the quarantine period itself. If people are interested, then we make new MNREGA job cards. So once they are out of quarantine, and safety issues are handled, immediately we will be able to give them wage labour,” the official said.
A senior official designing the policy said the next challenge is to create work that meets this returning influx of people. “What we have also done is to ask districts to sanction the highest possible labour-intensive work so that we don’t waste too many funds on procuring items from here and there. Instead, we are able to put the money into the pockets of the people so they have some disposable income. For example, land leveling is one work that can be done. Small farm ponds can be dug, and then the earth can be used to strengthen the patch of land, which is called “medbandi” in Chhattisgarh. This soil that comes out is fairly fertile and we can use it for of plantation along culverts of the land. We can provide some fruit-bearing trees, or pulses and so on. This also provides income in the days to come,” a senior official said.
Panchayat and Rural Development Minister T S Singhdeo said one of the biggest issues in states is the lack of disposable income. He added that during the monsoon, the lack of income will impact both returning migrants, and those who stayed back. “Those who do paddy transplantation only they are able to generate some labour. So forest produce and MNREGA helps the most needy. There are no two ways about it. No matter what plant you put up – whether 10 Bhilai Steel Plants, or 20 Maruti plants – they can only manufacture and to an extent provide jobs. The market to whom they supply, needs money. If cement is not picked up, if clothes are not bought, if consumables are not picked up, no industry will pick up. You need people with buying capacity,” Singhdeo said.
Officials say that the MNREGA numbers presently are at an eight-year record. “The highest previous record was on May 23, 2012; 12.87 lakh people were engaged. In the beginning of April this year, 57,000 people were working (under MNREGA). By the end of April, we hit 19.87 lakh. On May 14, the figure was 24.84 lakh. At one point, we were 24 percent of the national average. Other states have also upped their game and so, as of 2-3 days ago, we were still 15 percent. We have 32 lakh active job cards. Of these card-holders, 25 lakh are being provided work,” an official said.
Orders have also been made, officials said, that mandate that masks, sanitisers and soaps be procured locally. “There are directions that state that masks, santisers have to be procured from local SHGs (Self-help groups) or the Rural Industries department. So these people are provided raw materials, cloth, alcohol and glycerine. Only if the SHGs and the Gram Udyog department run out of stock are districts allowed to buy from outside. The idea is to keep the money in the area.”