Nand Lal was working in an electronics company at Parwanoo, an industrial town in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh, when the first lockdown was announced, in March. He had no choice but to come back to Surah, his village in the Murhag panchayat of Mandi district.

Since then, he has already worked for 56 days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme on the metalling of a link road. The wages under the scheme may be meagre but have come as a big help, says Nand Lal, who used to earn nearly ₹20,000 a month with overtime. Now, he gets ₹198 per day under MGNREGA.

“At least I am able to earn. I am busy working at the construction site and even though the work is laborious compared to the repair work I was doing at the factory, I am happy because I am working in a carefree and clean environment,” he says.

Although the factory has since opened, Nand Lal’s family is not letting him go back due to Covid fears. Nand Lal has around seven bighas of land and he works in his fields in the morning and evening.

“If and when I have enough money, I hope to start my own repair unit,” he says. He is not sure whether he will ever return to his job, even if the pandemic is contained. Twenty-seven-year-old Hemraj from the same village worked in a different wing of the same factory in Parwanoo. He too is back. “I have just completed the first batch of work under MGNREGA for 14 days. But for this daily wage, I am not sure how we would have managed,” he says.

Benefiting all

According to the gram panchayat head, Tejender, 45 of the returnees after the lockdown have received employment under MGNREGA. Some of them are working on their own agricultural land, some in the ongoing work of tiling roads. It is not only those who lost their jobs during the lockdown who have benefited from the job demand scheme; others too, who feel that it is not worth leaving the village, have been happy to find work through it.

Land development

Take the case of Dhaniram, who returned to the village some years back from his job with the 102 Ambulance service. He was earning less than ₹10,000 a month. Someone advised him to get his land developed under the livelihood scheme and start growing vegetables, a lucrative cash crop. Dhaniram says the decision stood him in good stead — it ensured he doesn’t need to take up a job.

Wages under MGNREGA have also helped some floriculturists in the hill State get by. Cultivators have been suffering huge losses with no buyers for their produce during the pandemic. Manoj is one such farmer from Kunagi village, where over 20 families with small land holdings shifted to greenhouse cultivation three or four years back. This after they got their barren land developed under MGNREGA and received 85 per cent subsidy for the construction of poly houses. “We grew carnations and our income increased almost four-fold. But the lockdown was a big blow. That was when our flowers were ready to be sold. There was no transport and no marketing facilities and so the beautiful flowers perished before our own eyes,” he says.

Before preparing for cultivating carnations for the next season, Manoj has resorted to work on an MGNREGA project to recover a bit of his losses.

“It was through the land development scheme under MGNREGA that our barren land became cultivable, and it is due to the rural livelihood scheme that we are able to earn wages in this time of the pandemic,” he says. Given the rate of inflation many feel wages under MGNREGA need to be revised. They are also keen that the mandated days for work be raised from 120 to 200 in the State.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi