First, there was corona. And then came the lockdown. It was like a curse had fallen on my family,” says Kakoli Roy, 34, sitting on her haunches in front of the earthen stove on the verandah of her house. The broth from the rice she is cooking hisses angrily, rises and spills on the mud stove.
Until March, Kakoli and her husband Nanda Roy, 44, worked as farm labourers in Berugram village in West Bengal’s Purba Bardhaman district, earning Rs 150 on days they got work. “Sometimes I worked on others’ fields, sometimes I went to mine sand in the Damodar river. The work is not legal, but I had to earn money,” says Nanda.
Then came the lockdown to check the spread of Covid-19 and all work came to a halt. As the lockdown was gradually lifted, the family of five — besides the couple, their two children Shuvadeep, 15, and Swapnadeep, 7, and Roy’s mother Saraswati — realised that with work on others’ farms hard to come by, they had only one option to fall back on: Roy’s job card under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) that he got made in 2009 and the 100 days of local employment it promised.
Though NREGA work was halted as part of the national shutdown annouced by the Prime Minister in March, the flagship jobs scheme was among the first to be opened up, albeit with social distancing norms.
As panchayat officials in Berugram began issuing new job cards, Kakoli decided to register for one. “My name was not on my husband’s job card, so I applied and got a new one. There are a lot of jobs for which they call women. Now that both of us get some money from NREGA work, we have been somehow running the household,” says Kakoli.
Across the country, over 83 lakh new households have been issued job cards in the first five months of the current financial year — the highest in the last seven years. Of this, 16,700 new cards have been issued in Purba Bardhaman, where 6.16 lakh households are under NREGA — the maximum for any district in the country.
As Covid and the lockdown put the brakes on the economy of the district that revolved round its lush paddy fields and the workforce it sent out to states such as Kerala and Maharashtra, the rise in NREGA enrollment is a sign that in uncertain times such as these, the job guarantee scheme is one of the few safety nets, however frayed, for families like the Roys.
For some days in June, July and August, the couple worked on an NREGA project to clear an irrigation canal near their village, earning Rs 204 for every day. They have now been working on a forest clearing project.
“I worked for 10 days and got Rs 2,040, and my husband earned Rs 4,080 for 20 days of NREGA work. The money wasn’t much, but was a lifeline for our family when there was nothing else,” she says.
In June, after withdrawing the MNREGA money from her bank account, Kakoli rushed to the local grocer. “I bought the usual mustard oil, salt, haldi, jeera, dhania, garam masala, puffed rice, molasses, milk powder and tea leaves,” says Kakoli. But this time, she also bought some kerosene.
“We have had no electricity since February. It got disconnected because we couldn’t pay the pending bills — around Rs 10,000. There is no way we can pay that kind of money, so we’ll have to go without it,” she says. Behind her, her elder son Shuvadeep, a Class 9 student, sits on the mud floor that is caked with cowdung slurry, writing in a notebook.
Shuvadeep, 15, and Swapnadeep, 7, go to the local Berugram Acharya Girishchandra Basu Vidyapith. The school has been shut for close to six months now, but in lieu of the mid-day meal, Swapnadeep gets rice, potato, chick peas, soap and hand sanitizer from school.
That’s a useful addition to the 28 kg rice, 12 kg flour and 1 kg dal — all free, under the Antyodaya Annapoorna Yojana for BPL families — that the family gets through the state PDS system.
When she is not out on NREGA work, the children take up Kakoli’s time. “School is shut but they need to study. So my time goes in chasing them down and asking them to study.”
She now sends her elder son to a local tutor, paying Rs 200 a month. “You know, education is a must. I studied up to Class 8 and my husband till Class 3. But I want my sons to study and do well,” she says.
The small mud house has two small rooms, one of which is for Kakoli’s mother-in-law Saraswati. A small cot, a plastic chair and a stool is all the furniture they have.
The lone ceiling fan has been gathering dust since February.
The family is building a new single-storeyed house with the first installment of Rs 6,000 that Kakoli’s mother-in-law got last year under the Bangla Abas Yojana/Prime Minister Aawas Yojana. “Once this is ready, she’ll move there. We will be here,” says Kakoli.
In West Bengal, a state that’s heading into a highly polarised, high stakes election, NREGA — and its role as a social security scheme in times of job losses and economic distress — isn’t lost on political parties.
While the ruling Trinamool Congress has been claiming credit for the annual expenditure on the job scheme going up 200 per cent between 2011 and 2019, the BJP chooses to remind that NREGA is a Central government programme.
Subrata Mukherjee, Minister of Panchayat and Rural Development whose ministry is the nodal agency for implementing NREGA, denies the government is leveraging the job scheme for the elections.
“We issued lakhs of new jobs cards this year. The migrant labourers who came from different states had all lost jobs. We provided them job cards so that they could earn some money for their family during these tough times. We never did all this thinking of the elections. We did this because it is our responsibility as a state government to take care of our people. However, people of the state know about our government’s work and achievement. So, obviously, this will also benefit us in the election.”
The elections, however, are not on Kakoli’s mind. “I don’t have the time to think of everything in the world. When the time comes to vote, I’ll see,” she says.
These days, the couple have been working on an NREGA project to clear the village wasteland of thorny shrubs and weeds. This Thursday morning, they haven’t been called to work, but Kakoli offers to take The Sunday Express to the work site.
As she heads to the site, on the far end of the village, she talks of her routine on days that she has NREGA work — wake up at 3 am, rush through cooking and cleaning, and leave by 6 am for the job site. Work starts at 7 am and goes on till noon, with half an hour’s break. There are days when only Kakoli gets called for work, and others when only Nanda goes to work. But on some days, both of them get called. On days such as these, Kakoli takes Swapnadeep along.
“It is very difficult to work with small children. So, I keep a packet of biscuits or some sweets for Swapnadeep. He sits beside me while I work. After work, I bathe and prepare lunch,” says Kakoli.
At the NREGA work site, Surajit Malik, one of the supervisors, says, “We managed to get a lot of work done during the lockdown period — cleaned the irrigation canal, cleared the forest, undertook road-side plantation. There are also people who worked on aloevera plantation, fish cultivation and road construction work… We take extra care in these times. All the workers get maks and hand sanitisers. “
According to panchayat officials, all this work involved 86,511 man days of work and 4,174 job cards. The officials said that since April, 636 new job cards have been made in the Berugram gram panchayat alone, taking the total number of active job cards to 5,424.
Shuvankar Majumder, Block Development Officer of Jamalpur block, under which Berugram falls, says, “We usually plan for a whole year’s NREGA works in April. But this year, since it’s a pandemic and people have less money in their hands, we have been trying to get as much work done as possible so that people have money in their hands. We have already spent 88% of the fund’s target this year. We can seek more funds after that.”
So far, the panchayat has only seen two Covid cases. Of the 311 migrants who returned, none tested positive. Yet, Majumder fears that if the numbers rise, it could affect NREGA too.
“We are now facing a problem. In March, April, May, there were no reported cases of Covid in the block, so we could engage around 15,000 workers a day. But from June, we have been seeing Covid cases. So we have had to be careful. Now we only call about 5,000 workers a day for NREGA work. As far as possible, we try to involve needy families – women, migrants who have come back and are without jobs.”
According to the district administration, Jamalpur block saw 2,739 migrant labourers returning home.
Among those who returned is Sheikh Taslim, a 24-year-old in Salimdanga Jabjabi village, a little over a kilometer from Kakoli’s home.
Taslim used to work in a factory in Mumbai earning Rs 15,000 a month. When the lockdown began, the factory shut down and he returned home to be with his mother Sufiya Begum, 55.
“I had some money when I came back on April 10, after which I stayed in quarantine for 15 days. But the money started running out and the factory owner in Mumbai wasn’t calling me back either. So I went to the panchayat office and applied for a NREGA job card. I got the card in June and got work from July. I worked for 16 days on a road clearing work nearby and got Rs 3,264 for that. The money is not much, but at least there is something. Apart from that, with NREGA, there’s at least some work to keep you sane in these times.”
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