India Lockdown: Double Whammy For Daily Wage Workers As Work Stops Under MGNREGA
Workers stand in line to scan their fingerprints as they sign out at the end of their shifts at the Rungamattee Tea & Industries Ltd. Chandighat Tea Estate in Cachar, Assam, India, on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Photographer: Nicolo Filippo Rosso/Bloomberg

India Lockdown: Double Whammy For Daily Wage Workers As Work Stops Under MGNREGA

The world’s biggest lockdown to contain the coronavirus pandemic has stalled work under the rural jobs guarantee scheme, leaving daily wage workers with little to fall back on.

Work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—which guarantees 100 days of work to daily wage earners in rural areas—has come to a standstill due to the lockdown in India, a government official told Bloomberg Quint. Some ongoing work that involves priority and comes under essential service like for hospitals is still going, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

The novel coronavirus, which has killed nine people in India and infected more than 500 so far, forced the government to seal the nation’s borders completely for 21 days, shutting businesses temporarily in an already slowing economy. But that has mainly hurt daily wage earners, contractual labourers and self-employed workers, among others, in the informal economy in rural and urban areas, pushing them out of jobs amid the nation’s high unemployment rate.

In current circumstances, demand for work under MGNREGA would have risen, according to Abhijit Sen, former member of the Planning Commission. Along with those already working under MGNREGA, some of those who are now unemployed would have found work under the scheme, intended to work as a safety net, he told BloombergQuint. But with work under the scheme also having come to a halt, the effects of unemployment will now be magnified, Sen said.

“What are needed are measures that will provide income to not just labourers working under the scheme, but also those who would now have found work under the scheme in the absence of other employment opportunities.”

MGNREGA employs 26.6 crore workers, of which 12.81 crore are active, according to data available on its website. So far in the ongoing financial year, 7.75 crore individuals from 5.4 crore households have been employed under the scheme.

Some states have announced that they will pay workers even during the lockdown. While Kerala announced the release of Rs 2,000 crore under the employment scheme in the next two months, Karnataka will pay workers for the next two months in one time. The Tamil Nadu government announced two days of wages to be paid to workers registered under the scheme. MGNREGA workers in Uttar Pradesh will soon be paid their dues for March.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, in a letter dated March 23, urged the central government to provide unemployment payments to daily wage workers enrolled under the scheme.

Also Read: India’s 21-Day Lockdown May Shave 2 Percentage Points Off GDP Growth

According to NR Bhanumurthy, professor at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, there’s no other option for the central government at this juncture than to announce a package for daily wage workers under MGNREGA. Since there’s no work for the labourers, the centre should step in and provide compensation to active workers under MGNREGA without any delay, Bhanumurthy told BloombergQuint.

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