Covid-19: The rural unemployment problem caused by migrant workers needs urgent solutions

| Updated on July 08, 2020 Published on July 07, 2020

Widening the scope of public works under MGNREGA itself would seem to be a better way to address the crisis, rather than trying to find new budgetary resources to reinvent the wheel

With Covid precipitating a mass exodus of workers from cities to the hinterland, the rural employment guarantee scheme MGNREGA has been facing an unprecedented challenge, trying to accommodate the swelling ranks of rural unemployed in the limited number of rural public works. A BusinessLine report notes that as the number of rural households registered under MGNREGA shot up by 70 per cent year-on-year in June, it turned away one in five households unable to assign any work. This is despite the scheme having already expended over 75 per cent of its available funds and allocated 44 per cent of its budgeted work for the whole year in the first three months of this fiscal. This demand-supply mismatch will likely worsen in the coming months, with the South-West monsoon interrupting public works. This is unlikely to remain a seasonal issue either, with many returning migrants indicating they may stay put in their hometowns. Agricultural activity in India has always been characterised by small farmers eking out a subsistence living with meagre incomes. Should resettling migrants from urban areas lead to an overcrowding of job seekers in agriculture, this can precipitate a collapse in rural wages and consumption. There’s therefore an urgent need to address the rural unemployment problem, before it snowballs into a wider socio-economic crisis.

A few courses of action suggest themselves. For one, despite the NDA regime’s obvious discomfort with the scheme, the MGNREGA has proved to be a reliable vehicle to deliver a timely rural safety net. The budgetary allocations to this scheme therefore need to be urgently augmented. If the worry is about leakages, safeguards such as using Aadhaar-linked Jan Dhan accounts for cash transfers and geo-tagging MGNREGA-funded public works should suffice. Two, it needs to be kept in mind that MGNREGA can only provide subsistence-level income to rural workers. For them to do better, concerted efforts will need to be made to skill them suitably for more sustainable employment opportunities in services or manufacturing. Instances of returning migrant workers taking up lucrative employment as bank mitras to serve under-banked areas is a good example of what re-skilling can achieve. Three, the Centre must also review and rejuvenate its rural infrastructure building initiatives such as the PM Gram Sadak Yojana and Awas Yojana Grameen, which were key sources of skilled non-farm jobs a couple of years ago but have flagged lately.

The Centre has flagged off a parallel effort to MGNREGA under the banner of PM Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan to help migrant workers in 116 districts find job opportunities in rural road building, laying of gas and water pipelines, waste management, fibre optic cable-laying and the like. But widening the scope of public works under MGNREGA itself would seem to be a better way to address the crisis, rather than trying to find new budgetary resources to reinvent the wheel.

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Published on July 07, 2020
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