For Dhara Dungri, a bordering village of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, characterised by parched hilly terrains, summers usually meant households that are either completely locked or occupied by only children and elderly people. However, with the imposition of the Covid-19 lockdown, the village has seen an unprecedented return of all its residents — the workforce of the cities — for an indefinite time. With this, the district has also witnessed a surge in employment under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Act (MNREGA).
Rajsinh Mohaniya (25) is one among the over thousands who returned to the village between March and April and now being employed under MNREGA and working on continuous contour trenches on the small hillocks at the village. Rajsinh, his wife, his two brothers and sisters-in-law migrate out for work every year leaving behind their mother and two children. After the lockdown, Rajesh and his wife had walked from Vadodara to reach his village on March 29 . “There was no work in April and we had to borrow Rs 20,000 to feed the family of nine. We are yet to pay the money back,” Rajsinh said.
“Under MNREGA, the wages are minimum but enough to help us sustain at our house here. Our earnings in the city also included travel and other expenses, here we do not incur those,” he added.
They are paid Rs 224 per day as minimum wages. The wages were revised from Rs 198 earlier. The family own a small land in the village which only produces enough for them to consume throughout the year, restricting any income from the farm produce.
The scenario is similar across most villages in the tribal district, where villagers with low land holdings and lack of irrigation facilities tend to migrate to other cities for better income. The district, which has seen return of around 1 lakh migrants from various cities of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, has reported the highest number of labourers employed under MNREGA.
According to the official records, Dahod has an estimated number of 2,38,350 labourers to be engaged in various works as on Friday — the highest in the state — followed by Bhavnagar, which is far behind at 77,659 and Narmada with 59, 208. Of the 533 gram panchayats in the district, work is actively ongoing in 509 of them. The districts with the lowest employment are Ahmedabad, Mehsana, Gandhinagar with the maximum number of unskilled labour expected to be engaged as per muster roll are around 10,000, 6,000 and 4,000 respectively. In May and June last year, the labourers engaged under MNREGA were 42000 on an average daily.
“The employment rate under MNREGA has gone up drastically in the last one month. We knew that a lot of people had returned to the villages. We took this as an opportunity and pushed employment under MNREGA for them. This also ensured that they had a source of income during this crisis time. We have been actively working towards coordinating between the demand for jobs and initiating projects and creating avenues of rural employment which could meet this demand. We plan to eventually increase the number to 3 lakhs. We have been trying to clear payments within three-five days. Ideally for the payment procedure, muster rolls are created after a week of work, and then the payment is processed through direct bank transfers, which takes 7-8 days but we have expedited the process,” said Rachit Raj, District Development Officer, Dahod.
For the district, the work demand from individual households under MNREGA has shot up from 16,642 in April to 1,41,420 in May and to 1,03,150 for June. Of these, 12,378 households were provided employment in April and 77,429 in May. The work demand from individual households on an average for these months in the last two years has been comparatively lower at 9500 (April), 31,000 (May) and 37,000 (June). The district has so far spent Rs 31,25,90,000 as wages under MNREGA since the beginning of this financial year.
The expenditure on wages for the financial year 2019-2020 for the same period was 23,53,38,000.
The workers, however, are divided over migrating to cities again for work once the situation normalises.
Mahesh Bhabhor, 42, had returned to his village of Raniyar Sarkari for the wedding of his daughter. Having exhausted all his savings on the wedding, he was scheduled to return to Vadodara and resume work as a contractual wager in the last week of March, when the lockdown was imposed. On May 4, he began working on a pond widening project under the Sujalam Sufalam yojna, close to the village. As of Wednesday, 560 people from the village were employed in the project.
“I have a one acre land and in monsoon we grow maize but that is enough for us to consume. I do not mind working under MNREGA here. If we have enough work and I am able to sustain my family, I would wish to stay back here. And living without the family for around nine months is not easy,” Bhabhor said.
A few kilometres away in Pavdi village, over 80 per cent population of 5,800 persons migrated for work. Most of them skilled workers, this is for the first time that the villagers in Pavdi are working for minimum wages. Ganpat Bhabhor and his wife Indira Bhabhor who worked at a tile manufacturing factory in Surat together earned Rs 1,500 a day. “We have never worked for minimum wages. We have worked in the tile manufacturing industry for long. Certainly we are lucky that we could manage to get work even in the village, but we are still nursing hopes for the factories to open so that we can resume our work,” Indira said.
Of the over 20,875 works under progress in Dahod, over 15,000 are housing projects under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna followed by water conservation works. “We have promoted PMAY housing scheme as well. This will also help them build their own houses. Maximum other projects pertain to water conservation works like check dams and pond deepening which will help us prepare for the impending monsoons. Lack of adequate water supply for irrigation is one of the major reasons behind migration. Initiating projects that will help conserve water will also help us ensure that villagers can continue farming in seasons apart from just monsoons,” Raj added.
How is the work different from cities?
For most migrants, work in the city meant more money but less certainty. Havjibhai Bhabhor, 46, has worked in Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot as contractual labourer at construction sites. Left with no work, he had returned to his village after the lockdown.
“A contractor would hire us for 10-15 days if it is a long construction project, which meant we were sure of wages for that many days. Some people would also hire us for single-day works. Under MNREGA however we know that it is a 100-day job. Though the pay is comparatively lesser than that in the city, it gets managed with the rent and travel cost,” Bhabhor said.
For some, the work in the cities also meant learning new skills. “In cities, there is a chance to learn new skill sets if we work at various industries like paper, textile, loom, diamond and tile. The work here gets mechanical at times. Here it is about digging for eight hours straight,” Indira said.
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