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Covid-19 setbacks, financial distress add to the woes of daily-wagers

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on October 20, 2020 Published on October 20, 2020

With the return of migrant workers, the supply of labourers now exceeds demand; recent flooding makes future look bleak

Kamlesh, 22, from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh (UP), has survived and fought many socio-economic challenges in life. From serving as a bonded labourer at the age of 10 to fighting for his education rights, Kamlesh has struggled hard to build a better future for his family and his community as a whole.

However, amidst the ravaging pandemic, coupled with a squeezed economy and after-effects of a devastating flood, the prospect of a better future looks bleak for Kamlesh and his village.

Lack of job opportunities

When it comes to employment opportunities, a major portion of the rural population largely depends on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). It aims to guarantee the ‘right to work’, especially to the poor and marginalised.

Speaking to BusinessLine on the work opportunities under MGNREGA, Kamlesh revealed that the administration asked the daily wagers, especially the ones who had returned from cities, to renew their job cards without which they would not be able to secure work.

“Many people from my village applied for job cards but it takes at least three-four months to process it. Meanwhile, people who already had job cards could not get work for more than a week, especially during the summer, due to frequent lockdowns,” he said.

In a recent study conducted by the Human Liberty Network across 52,942 households in 75 villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), only 20-50 per cent of job cardholders were seen able to access MGNREGA work.

“We are now looking for work but it is difficult to get work here since with the return of the migrants the supply of labourers has exceeded the demand,” Kamlesh added.

Parinita Kumari, a social activist and member of the NGO ADITHI, told BusinessLine that the inclusion of the migrants for MGNREGA depends on whether or not they had visited quarantine centres.

Data collated by Parinita’s organization suggest that only four lakh people were employed under MGNREGA across 38 districts of Bihar. This included people with old job cards and migrants who returned to their villages.

People who directly came to the villages were not registered for the renewal of their job cards. Hence, only 20-30 per cent of people secured the job cards during the coronavirus-induced lockdown, Parinita observed.

“According to our study, 51 per cent of people faced complete income loss, while only 29 per cent of people had an active job card,” Parinita said.

“These people are being massively exploited as they are left with no other choice, and so they agree to work even for paltry payments,” she said grimly.

The debt bondage trap

The Human Liberty Network report stated that the lack of jobs under MGNREGA has resulted in distress migration, child labour, and debt bondage.

“The practice of bonded labour is still prevalent in UP. My family of four had also served as bonded labourers for five years when we could not repay ₹5,000 to our lender. However, we were later rescued by the administration,” said Kamlesh, who is also a debt bondage survivor.

Devendra,23, met with the same fate as Kamlesh when he, along with his family, travelled to different places across UP in search of work. Devendra was trapped in bonded work as a child until the Human Liberty Network rescued him. Now, Devendra and his villagers are struggling with little or no opportunity for work.

Elaborating on the debt bondage in UP, Bhanuja Sharan Lal, social activist, told BusinessLine: “In UP, the government has brought many schemes, like Nivesh Mitra, in order to enhance the ease of doing business. However, the rampant unemployment, especially after the migrants’ return in April this year has plagued the state, with more than three lakh Dalits largely affected by this.”

Bhanuja, who is also associated with Manav Sansadhan Evam Mahila Vikas Sansthan in UP, said that despite the government’s increased budgetary allocations to support the vulnerable communities, people are getting sucked into debt bondage.

Reformed labour laws

The economic tremors in rural areas come at a time when India stands on the cusp of major economic reforms under the banner of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

The country has brought some sweeping changes in its labour laws to attract foreign investors and facilitate ease of doing business.

However, the new labour reforms at the state and central levels have left workers, especially from the lower rungs, disgruntled and disappointed.

This further jeopardises the already precarious state of the workers in the country. According to a report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) published in 2018, average labour productivity, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per worker, increased more rapidly than real average wages in the post-liberalization period.

However, the labour share declined from 38.5 per cent in 1981 to 35.4 per cent in 2013 in India.

Labour laws in UP

In state rankings, UP recently jumped to the second position in the ease of doing business, succeeded by Andhra Pradesh. This came after the state dissolved 35 out of 38 labour laws, including the Minimum Wages Act and Contract Labour Act.

According to Bhanuja, the dilution of the 1976 labour laws will be hazardous for the relationship between workers and employers. This could further exacerbate the condition of skilled and unskilled labourers as they will be exposed to bad working environment, resulting in worsening health conditions and financial insecurity.

Ravaging flood

The crisis in Bihar is more pronounced than in its neighbouring state UP. Bihar recently witnessed a devastating flood that ravaged towns and villages, leaving people without food and shelter.

According to the Disaster Management Department bulletin, more than 82 lakh people across 16 districts were affected by the disastrous flood.

On the aftermath of the floods in Bihar, Parinita said: “Bihar gets affected by floods every year. However, the intensity was much higher this time. Millions of people were rendered homeless.”

She said that her organization did its best to facilitate rescue measures. But that was not enough. “People lost their lives, houses, resources, and food supplies to the flood at a time when the pandemic was ravaging the country. Imagine the intensity!” she said.

Worse, the people are unable to take loans now due to the prolonged closure of offices following the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent flood.

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Published on October 20, 2020
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