It’s imperative to make MGNREGS worksites pandemic-safe

Jyothis Sathyapalan | Updated on May 29, 2020

Careful work selection, age-appropriate task allotment, monitoring of social distancing could hold the key

Social distancing, frequent washing of hands with soap and water, and wearing a mask are among the significant measures suggested to control the spread of Covid-19. However, practising these are found to be rather difficult for poor communities, such as daily wage labourers.

After three weeks of a complete lockdown, the Ministry of Rural Development issued a letter, on April 15, allowing the resumption of works under the MGNREGS. It later topped it up with an additional budget of ₹40,000 crore.

Increasing demand

MNREGS will be witnessing an increase in demand for work as a large number of migrant workers are returning to their villages following job losses in cities due to the lockdown. Providing them with work as well as safe worksites will undoubtedly be a challenge in the coming weeks in the context of Covid-19.

The Ministry has advised sensitising the authorities on the imperatives of maintaining social distancing at worksites. Therefore, district authorities and micro planners need to come up with innovative ideas to establish pandemic-safe worksites.

Recent data show that around 13.35 crore job cards (applying to 27.17 workers) have been issued to families; that is, about 69 per cent of the rural households. Approximately 7.77 crore job cards (11.82 workers) are active, which is about 39 per cent of the total rural households in India. Due to the reverse migration, the demand for employment may peak.

Income contribution

A recent study by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), covering 25 States, shows that 38 per cent of these wage seekers are landless and the remaining are marginal and smallholders. The scheme contributes about ₹8,666 per year per household, or 9.5 per cent of the total household annual income. This varies between 7 per cent and 17 per cent across States.

The percentage is less than 9.5 per cent in 13 States -- Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Assam, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Rajasthan. The share is quite high in States such as Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Manipur, Meghalaya and Madhya Pradesh. Overall, 75 per cent of the household income from MNREGS is used for buying food, medicine and other basic needs.

Key concerns post-Covid

While planning the works taking into account Covid-19 measures, the first concern is about the nature of tasks and activities under each approved work. A work is a combination of tasks, and each task consists of different activities. While some works demand collective completion of tasks with more than five workers, others are independent and can be completed with one or two people.

So, a major challenge is to identify those works which have fewer collective tasks, such as water conservation works, plantations including horticulture, etc, that can be assigned to able-bodied workers where it is possible to keep a social distance.

The second aspect is the age and vulnerability of the workers to the virus. Most of the workers are healthy adult members belonging to the age group of 40 to 60 years. Around 12 per cent of the workers belong to the older age group, and 2 per cent face debilitating health issues, as per the study.

As a precaution, it may be wise to find an alternative way of supporting the aged, and people with debilitating health, by providing lighter tasks. They may be allowed to work in the maintenance of horticulture plantations, watering, weeding, watch and ward, etc, to ensure their wellbeing.

Muster roll size

Thirdly, there is a need to consider the size of the muster roll. At present, a single muster roll consists of 20-25 members, depending on the number of available workers. It is noticed that joining of different muster rolls is practised in large projects in many States. As a result, works were implemented with over 400 people in many worksites, which must be avoided in the present context.

It is always wise to have a single muster roll in one worksite so that social distancing can be strictly monitored and enforced.

Strict monitoring of facilities is also required for ensuring pandemic-safe worksites. Facilities like safe drinking water, shade for children and periods of rest, first-aid box with adequate material for emergency treatment for minor injuries and other health hazards can be topped up with soaps, masks etc.

Finally, speedy issue of new job cards and timely payment of wages are crucial to enhance the safety of the poor through MGNREGS. Different communication channels like internet, phone, or oral communication must be encouraged for demanding work. Delay in payment of wages must be avoided with sufficient funds in government accounts.

Role of panchayats

The implementation of works needs to be solely under the direction of panchayats during the pandemic period. The role of panchayats is found to be highly effective in achieving a balance between social distancing measures and livelihoods activities.

It is feasible to establish pandemic-safe work sites for MGNREGS through appropriate work selection, focus on single muster rolls, age-appropriate work allotment, improved work facilities, and monitoring of social distancing. Improved governance of worksites through panchayats will ensure the efficient and effective implementation of the scheme.

(The writer is Professor and Head, Centre for Wage Employment and Livelihoods, National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India)

Published on May 29, 2020

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