Migrant workers in U.P. find meagre solace in shovels

Having left behind skilled and better paying jobs in cities, they are slowly turning to MGNREGA works back home

Updated - November 28, 2021 12:06 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2020 04:18 pm IST - SITAPUR

Workers are seen working at Muda Kala village in Sitapur.

Workers are seen working at Muda Kala village in Sitapur.

Chayi wala admi dhoop mein ajaye , toh dikkat toh hoti hai (‘a man used to working in the shade will feel uncomfortable under the sun’),” says Nizamuddin.

Till mid-March, Mr. Nizamuddin earned his living as a tailor in Delhi's Seelampur. Depending on contracts, he could muster anything between ₹5,000 to ₹10,000 per month. However, the lockdown forced his employer to shut business, consequently leading him back home, Muda Kala village in Sitapur.

After serving the mandatory quarantine period, Mr. Nizamuddin, skilled in the art of scissors and fine measurements, is now out with a shovel under the May sun, digging to build a pucca road. He is one of many desperate migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh who have taken to labour work under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme since returning home.

‘Must toil’

“When there is no work, then one must learn to toil as a labourer. What will I eat otherwise?” he responded, when asked if the new job was proving tough for a tailor.

With the aim of providing employment to rural areas during the lockdown, the U.P. government is engaging labourers at a fast pace. Among these are migrant workers who have lost their livelihoods and made the perilous journey back home.

Mukesh Kumar of Jamuniya has also made the shift from packing bags in a company in Rudrapur, Uttarakhand to digging a pond in his native village. In Uttarakhand, he took home a fixed monthly salary of ₹9,000 but the lockdown forced the unit to shut. His employer stopped paying him but offered to provide him ration, but it proved too cumbersome amid restrictions so he decided to head back home, and work with a shovel, something to which the Intermediate-pass Mr. Mukesh was not accustomed.

“There is no other option right now,” he reasoned.

Target: 50 lakh jobs

As per government sources, the State has so far engaged 27.68 lakh unskilled labourers under the MGNREGA in 46,823 gram panchayats since April 21. Of these, just 2.35 lakh persons are migrants who have recently returned to their home State.

Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has set officials a target of 50 lakh jobs under the MGNREGA.

As the low percentage of migrants engaged in MGNREGA show, they have not really jumped into the work as of now. Officials say this is because many are still under quarantine, at home, or in schools, or perhaps too exhausted from the journey to start gruelling physical work right away.

In Neri village, Mevalal and 90 others were busy digging a pond near an uneven patch of land surrounded by mango trees. After months without work, Mr. Mevalal, a landless Dalit who has never left his village, is relieved to be employed again.

“I can at least run my house with these earnings,” he said.

Slow pace

However, none of the migrant workers in Neri have yet joined the MGNREGA scheme. Panchayat Mitr Sunil Sharma says he is yet to receive demand for work from them.

“They are not interested in working. They have just returned and probably want to rest at home with their kids,” he said.

Deputy Commissioner, MGNREGA Sitapur, S.K Srivastava also said that many migrants who were “skilled” and had been employed in shops and factories in other cities, were not turning up. “Many people don’t want to pick up the shovel,” he said.

Yet, though at a slow pace, desperation and financial uncertainty is forcing young workers to enlist under the MGNREGA. In Kaitha Bhari village, mostly populated with members of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Dalits, MGNREGA work has kicked off. Though not a single migrant has joined work, many have started applying for job cards. Among them is Pradeep Pal (19), who used to work as a painter in Lucknow and Prayagraj, earning ₹300-400 per day. Under MNREGA, he will receive only ₹201 in his account. In his village, most young and middle-aged men are idle or doing farm work after having returned from other cities.

‘Drastic situation’

“When the situation is drastic, something must be done. Besides, there is a lot of work in the village. You just need to be willing,” said Mr. Pal.

Many workers in Sitapur feel that they would eventually have to return to the cities as farm and rural labour might not be sustainable. But some like Jai Prakash Singh, who worked as a tailor in Gurgaon and is serving his quarantine period at a school in Chadra, don’t want to return.

“I was already working hard in Gurgaon. Now I will do labour work here. What difference does it make?” he asked.

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