Employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has collapsed to just over 1% of the usual rate this month due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Activists petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the government pay full wages to all active job card holders during this time, following its own instructions issued to other employers.
1.9 lakh families
Data from the MGNREGA website show that less than 1.9 lakh families have been provided work under the scheme so far in April 2020, in comparison to almost 1.6 crore households which were provided work in March, and the 1.8 crore households employed under the scheme in February before the lockdown began.
Chhattisgarh was the highest employment generator under the scheme in April, providing work to more than 70,000 families, followed by Andhra Pradesh with more than 53,000 households given work. However, these figures are a fraction of the usual employment provided in these States, and also raise concerns about COVID-19 infection being spread at worksites.
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The scheme, which guarantees 100 days of work per year at an average daily wage of ₹209, is key to providing livelihoods to poor villagers and is a backbone of the rural economy in difficult times.
Overall, 7.6 crore families hold active job cards under the scheme, and almost 5.5 crore families found work under the scheme last year.
The crash in employment rates under the scheme is despite the fact that migrant workers returning to villages should have increased demand in rural areas.
Also read: PIL in Supreme Court seeks full wages for MGNREGA workers for coronavirus lockdown period
No exceptions from restrictions were provided for the MGNREGA under the lockdown, although States were asked to continue implementing the scheme while following social distancing guidelines.
While announcing the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana relief package last month, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said MGNREGA daily wages would be increased by ₹20, and would support the 13.6 crore families who hold job cards.
As The Hindu had reported then, this relief is meaningless at a time when most States have closed down MGNREGA worksites to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“This is a collapse of the employment guarantee given to rural Indians at a time when it is most needed,” said Nikhil Dey, an activist with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, who has filed a Public Interest Litigation petition in the Supreme Court on the issue along with Magasaysay award winner and RTI activist Aruna Roy.
In an interim order after a hearing on April 8, the apex court directed that the matter be listed after two weeks.