Migrant workers' wait to get home ends, their fight for survival does not

Topics Migrants | CMIE | Lockdown

The decline in agriculture holdings is a big reason for the net migration to other sectors
Saurab Kumar, who worked as a plumber in Dehradun, about 175 km from his home, has nothing to repair in his village.

“Nobody has a water-fitting here, so I am useless,” says a despondent Kumar, sitting with a group of 10 boys near the village ponds.

His village, Hussainpur Kalan, about 48 km from Bijnor, on the NH-51 (Gajraula-Chandpur-Bijnor), is one of the thousands in Uttar Pradesh that send migrants to cities every year.

As the unemployment comes up, the boys abruptly end their game of rummy. “Today we all are useless. For the past two days, we got some work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), but the village pradhan has asked us to stop the work,” a boy says. Kumar interrupts. “I am lucky that I managed to return home, but at the loss of Rs 12,000 a month that I earned (in Dehradun). I have found just five days of work under the MGNREGS since I returned in mid-April,” he says.

“How can I feed my family, earning just Rs 1,000 in 45 days?” The helplessness in his voice is palpable.

According to a report of the working group on migration by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation in 2017, the share of all-duration migrants in the urban population in 2011 was 42.9 per cent, with over half of them coming from UP and Bihar. The report reveals 17 districts account for 25 per cent of India’s male inter-state migration. Ten of these districts are in UP.

Over 122 million people in India lost their jobs in April, according to estimates of the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The two main sources of work in rural areas are agriculture and the MGNREGS. With both overburdened, absorbing all the returnees appears unrealistic. Sowing and cultivation for the rabi season are over and the kharif season is yet to begin.

The MGNREGS is the only hope.

According to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) report titled “Labour in Indian Agriculture: A Growing Challenge”, the size of the agricultural workforce reduced by 30.57 million to 228.3 million in 2011-12 from 2004-05.

The decline in agriculture holdings is a big reason for the net migration to other sectors, the report states. On the other side, about 150 million people of the 272.5 million registered under the MGNREGS were without work. This means, a little over 55 per cent people are active workers, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) website shows.

Further, the average number of days of employment provided per household under the MGNREGS between FY16 and FY20 stands at 47, less than half the 100 days it promises to provide. From the beginning of this fiscal year (FY21) till June 10, average employment provided per household was just 18.43 days.

Hanifa, a mother of two, who received her job card in January, is running from stem to stern to get her son’s name added to the card, but to no avail. “My elder son is stuck in the city with no job and my younger son and I are struggling to find work here,” says Hanifa, a resident of Hirna Kheri village in western UP. Accusing the local administration of not providing them work under the MGNREGS, she points at the four entries in her job card. “Since I got this card, I have worked for just four days. Nobody here gets 100 days’ work. We are even paying for the grains, which the government is supposed to provide us for free,” she says.

According to the data, of the 54.8 million households that worked under the scheme, only 4.06 million completed 100 days of wage employment — a meagre 7.41 per cent.

The National Sample Survey (2007-08) showed that 28.3 per cent of the workforce in India were migrants. However, economic migrants made up less than a tenth of all migrants at just over 45 million, according to the 2011 Census. Arman Ali, a government job aspirant who was working as a carpenter in New Delhi to meet his education expenses, is unemployed.

“Even after studying so much I’m ready to hold the spade, but this government is not able to provide even that,” Ali rues.

Lamenting the government’s decision of cancelling all recruitments, Ali says he is worried, not just for himself but also for millions of others who will soon be too old for these vacancies.

Of the 13 western UP villages that Business Standard visited, MGNREGS work was available in just one. In some villages, where work was completed 20-25 days earlier, payment has not been made yet. Accepting the delay in payment, Pappu Ram, pradhan of Ahraula Tejvan village, says documentation has been done and payment will be made within a week.

Nikhil Dey, a social activist, who has worked on the MGNREGS since the law came into force in 2005, said the government should pay the workers on time in accordance with a Supreme Court judgment.

This will also boost demand in the economy. “There is enough money for now under the MGNREGS, but people are not getting work because of the local administration’s inefficiency. It is their fault that they have not created a shelf of projects in advance. They should provide twice the work they usually do,” Dey says.

In a recent interview to Business Standard, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had termed migrants assets for the state and spoke about his project of engaging 10 million migrants in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). “We are engaging at least one and a maximum of 10 additional workers in the 9 million MSMEs in the state. This can provide more than 10 million employment opportunities,” Yogi said.

For Kumar, and millions of others, the government is his last hope.

“We don’t have anything to eat. We are begging for work, please help us. Else, we will be forced to kill ourselves,” the 28-year-old says.

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