The BJP government in Gujarat has hailed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme as a ''lifesaver'' for the migrant workers, who returned to their native villages in the state due to the lockdown last year.
The state government praised the scheme in its report ‘Implications of COVID-19 on Gujarat on Energy, Emissions, Climate and Development Perspectives’, which was released by Chief Minister Vijay Rupani last Saturday on the occasion of World Environment Day. MGNREGA is the Centre's work guarantee scheme for rural people with predetermined minimum wage. It was launched by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2006.
''The MGNREGA scheme of guaranteed employment has been a lifesaver for labourers, compelled to return to their homes following the COVID-19 pandemic,'' the report said. Although in comparison to what these migrants were earning in cities, the wages under MGNREGA are minimum, they still consider it to be sufficient to sustain their families during such crisis situations induced by COVID-19, it said.
''Under the MGNREGA, the minimum wage paid is Rs 224 per day, which has been increased from earlier wage of Rs 198 per day. On a brighter note, living in their own village made them save more money, which otherwise was spent in travelling and rents,'' said the report, which was prepared by the state's climate change department together with IIM Ahmedabad and IIT Gandhinagar.
The report cited the ''positive role of MGNREGA in helping people vulnerable to pandemic sustain livelihood'' through examples of villages in tribal-dominated Dahod district, which offered the largest number of employment under the scheme during that time.
A contractual worker managed to enrol himself to MGNREGA, and ''although the maize cultivated on his small farm was sufficient to feed his family, employment under MGNREGA provided him with a better livelihood support, it said.
However, skilled workers in a village called Pavdi in the same district, despite being pleased to have some source of income support through MGNREGA, were still hoping for the factories to resume operation.
Insufficient use of their skill under the minimum wages programme was their major concern, said the report. Dahod district (2.38 lakh - number of labourers engaged under MGNREGA) reported the highest labourer engagement under MGNREGA, followed by Bhavnagar (77,659) and Narmada (59,208), the report said.
A majority of the projects were under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and state's Sujalam Sufalam Jal Sanchay Yojana. The report called for ''re-strategizing'' the MGNREGA to include ''skill-mapping, long-term risk coverage and income assurance'' as a crucial policy response towards prioritising agriculture as a part of the solution when it comes to migration. It said so while highlighting how agriculture was able to ''cushion migrant workers from the COVID-19 crisis by providing them with some subsistence earnings'' and their return ''helped in managing shortage of agricultural labourers.''
Citing the example of Saurashtra, where several migrants working in diamond polishing units in Surat returned during the lockdown, the report said they engaged themselves with land tilling activities and as farm labourers. The report also suggested that the government should allow wage increase to match the demand for labour in the agricultural sector with that of the migrant labourers.
''Agriculture should be prioritised as a part of the solution and should not be overlooked when it comes to migration...There is a need for a long-term strategy that takes into account underlying causes of migration including the links between agricultural policies and causes for migration,'' it said.