Mumbai: To generate livelihood opportunities for the millions of migrant workers who returned to their villages during the COVID-19-induced lockdown and stem distress migration in the future, the government will need to strengthen its rural jobs scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS), say experts. This will mean more funds for the scheme, doubling of the work days guaranteed under it and inclusion of new categories of work, our analysis shows.

In May and June, return migration pushed up the demand for work under the MGNREGS to its highest level since 2013-14. Upto 24.2 million rural households were demanding work in August 2020, a 66% increase from August 2019, data from the MGNREGS portal show. Many districts have exceeded their annual MGNREGS job creation targets already.

MGNREGS, which offers 100 days of work in a year to rural households who seek employment, has played a critical role in curbing distress migration and in building assets in rural areas but its implementation has been hindered by multiple challenges, show existing studies on out-migration trends.

Five months after they left the cities where they worked, some migrants have started returning to cities because of the lack of employment opportunities in villages, shows this rapid assessment survey. To meet the growing needs of job-seekers in cities, set to burgeon with migrants returning, the government now plans to launch a Rs 35,000-crore ($4.8 billion) urban version of MGNREGS, Bloomberg reported on September 2.

The ongoing crisis is an opportunity to enhance the funding given to MGNREGS, increase the days of employment from 100 to 200, and creatively deploy the scheme to meet the needs of the labour force as well as strengthen rural infrastructure, experts contend. About 660,000 workers have already exhausted their 100 days of work under MGNREGS, data on the scheme portal show.

Funds exhausted in four months

The rapid assessment survey we cited above estimated that over 25% migrants were still searching for work in their villages as late as July.

In July and August, the demand for the scheme declined as the kharif agricultural season generated employment in villages, but it still remained higher than the previous year, as the table below shows. Upto 72% more households demanded work in July 2020 than in July 2019 and upto 66% more households demanded work in August 2020 compared to August 2019.

About 17% of those who applied for work did not get it, as on August 3, as per the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee Report published by a group of activists. Nearly half the total MGNREGS budget (revised) for 2020-21 had already been spent in the first four months of this financial year, the report added. Revised budget estimates are a mid-year review of possible expenditure, taking into account the rest of expenditure and new services.

To tackle the increased demand for work in rural areas, the government launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Yojana (GKRY) on June 20 to provide work under 25 categories to skilled returning migrants. The Rs-50,000 crore ($6.82 billion) project aims to build rural infrastructure, provide internet facilities in villages and map the skills of rural migrant labour. Under the project, 116 districts--in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha and Jharkhand--were identified as beneficiaries.

The funds allocated to this project are not enough to deal with a crisis of this magnitude and a large proportion of households have not received the benefits under the GKRY so far, economist Ravi Srivastava, director of the Centre for Employment Studies at the Institute for Human Development, pointed out in this interview with IndiaSpend in May. In addition, concerns have been raised about GKRY excluding many districts with high demand for work and low supply of employment opportunities.

The hope for rural revival has now increasingly been pinned on MGNREGS with domain experts arguing that the scheme, operating across 691 districts, can be modified and enhanced to absorb the excess work demand.

Employment days need to double

The return of migrants due to the lockdown has swelled the ranks of the poor rural labour force and is likely to affect wages and intra-household allocation of work and labour, argued Srivastava in this June 2020 paper published in the Review of Agrarian Studies.

“With the slowdown in construction and other works in the unorganised sector that previously absorbed rural labour, these households are drastically affected,” says Chakradhar Buddha, an Andhra Pradesh-based activist and researcher with LibTech India, a team of engineers, social workers, and social scientists working to improve public service delivery in India. “In December, even farm work will be off. Work under MGNREGS must be extended to 200 days per individual. With the national average [MGNREGS] wages being Rs 198, the entire household is only able to get Rs 19,800 annually.” The 100-day cap on work provided under MGNREGS should be removed and work provided on demand, argued economists Jayati Ghosh and Prabhat Patnaik, and researcher Harsh Mander, in a May article in The Hindu. Ideas such as producing sanitisers, masks and soaps, permitting home-based activities and work in kitchen gardens and on one’s own farms under the framework of the Act have started gaining momentum.

Some source states such as Odisha and Kerala have started making plans for registration, skill mapping and employment of migrant workers. Odisha is the first major state to announce a plan of Rs 17,000 crore ($2.32 billion) for rural development and the revival and growth of micro, small and medium enterprises so as to provide employment to returnee migrants, among others. This, even as Odisha has exhausted its MGNREGS funds and was left with a negative balance of over 3% at the beginning of August. States such as Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have less than 5% of their allocated funds left. More than 27% and 14% demand for employment in Uttar Pradesh and Andhra, respectively, is not being met.

Suggestions to prioritise doubling the guaranteed number of work-days, increase the number of work schemes per panchayat, increase the wage rate, broaden the scope of work under MGNREGS, strengthen the delivery mechanism and include single women in the ambit of the scheme have been made in order to meet the needs and aspirations of returning migrants.

Discouraging distress migration

Rural-urban migration primarily results from differentials in growth and higher productivity and incomes in the urban industrial sector. Instituted in 2005, MGNREGS aimed to, among other things, prevent distress migration and create assets in rural areas to bridge the differentials.

Research suggests that MGNREGS has played a role in reducing short-term distress migration. Given the higher probability of such migration among people in the lowest decile of income, the scheme has proved especially useful for lower income groups, showed a 2018 study in the Indian Journal of Labour Economics.

The fall in the short-term migration rate due to MGNREGS has been estimated to be as much as 20% in a Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE) survey sample and 44% in the National Sample Survey data, both conducted in villages along the borders of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, showed a 2016 analysis by researchers Clément Imbert and John Papp. The common perception among local functionaries in many states is that MGNREGS is aimed at stopping seasonal migration, wrote Sudha Narayanan, assistant professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), in this March 2020 article in India Forum.

Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest migration source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal, according to studies. In addition, Odisha and Jharkhand have also seen high numbers of returning migrants during this pandemic. Consequently, it is among these states that the maximum demand for MGNREGS work has emerged from April to August 2020, as data from the graph below show.

Job opportunities and survival conditions in source and destination areas play a pertinent role in determining migration trends, point out researchers Ajay Dandekar and Rahul Ghai in a 2020 article published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

MGNREGS has helped reduce seasonal migration by providing such opportunities, according to the Ministry of Rural Development. States which provide more days of MGNREGS have shorter periods of short-term migration; each additional day of public employment reduces short-term migration by 0.6 days, concluded the analysis (cited above) on RICE survey on high out-migration regions.

This is corroborated by other studies. For instance, in Mayurbhanj and Jajpur districts of Odisha, MGNREGS played a clear role in reducing seasonal distress migration, a 2016 study by Jajati Keshari Parida found. In agricultural off-seasons (April-May), the scheme provided work to the poor, especially to Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) households, a lot of whom are landless and below the poverty line, it said. For ST and SC households, seasonal out-migration fell from 82.5% to 10.2% and 71.5% to 9.7%, respectively, after the scheme’s implementation.

The study further showed that while earlier about 67% of the households reported out-migration, this figure fell to around 9.5% between 2006 and 2011 after MGNREGS’s implementation.

Households without land and households with very little land (less than 1 acre) reported a massive drop in out-migration--from 87.3% to 7.2% and 84.7% to 12.5%, respectively, during this period--once again showing that migration is greater among the chronic poor. In addition, workforce participation rates (of those who possess job cards) were the highest for STs and SCs--99.3% and 98.1%, respectively--as most of them belonged to landless and below poverty line households and MGNREGS proved a useful opportunity for them.

Studies prove that MGNREGS has been helpful in asset creation in rural areas, which in turn has boosted rural economies and reduced distress migration. This is especially true for source regions of migration such as Bihar, eastern parts of UP, Odisha, Rajasthan, MP, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which experience a slew of issues such as chronic drought, deforested landscapes, poor water conservation techniques and devastated agro-ecologies, researchers Ajay Dandekar and Rahul Ghai write in a 2020 article published in the Economic and Political Weekly. This failed development contributes to the continuation of poor resource bases and assets in these areas.

Given that works under MGNREGS include water conservation and harvesting, drought-proofing and plantation, flood control and protection, land development, micro irrigation works, renovation of traditional water bodies, provision of irrigation facility, rural connectivity, etc., the scheme has acted as as a major driver of asset creation in rural areas.

Implementation hurdles

Decisions to migrate are influenced by the days of employment under MGNREGS and the wages paid to the workers under the scheme, a 2015 research study published in the Journal of Development Studies shows. At least 71% of the migrating households would not have migrated had they received a greater number of days of employment at source, concluded the study conducted in West Bengal in two blocks of Cooch Behar district in 2010-11. People who worked for more than 50 days said that they would have migrated had they not received that many days of employment.

However, multiple other factors have changed MGNREGS from a demand-based scheme to a work-availability based scheme. “NREGA work attracts the workers, and not the other way around. That, at any rate, is how it tends to work in the poorer states,” commented economist Jean Drèze in this May 2020 article in The Hindu. Administrative rationing of jobs (where not everyone who seeks work obtains it) and delays in wage payments has ended up discouraging subsequent demand for MGNREGS work, found this 2016 study in the Social Science Research Network.

Effective implementation of the scheme depends on administrative structures--in terms of staff capacity, timely disbursal of funds, administrative rationing, etc.--that states put in place, and which therefore vary from state to state. For instance, administrative rationing was higher in poorer states, this study published in the Economic and Political Weekly in 2012 showed. In Rajasthan, the supply-driven, top-down nature of the programme led to a "discouraged worker" syndrome--workers showed disinterest in demanding work and passively waited for it--showed a 2015 study published by the Economic and Political Weekly. This contributed to the dilution of the scheme 2010 onwards--not long after its 2006 launch--according to the study.

A lack of awareness of workers’ entitlements--around 60% respondents were not aware of fair wages--poor administrative capability, corruption and collusion of interests of the bureaucratic class and elected local officials--all contributed to the poor implementation of the scheme, said a working paper, based on a field survey conducted in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh in 2017-18 by the University of Amherst.

While there are now demands for a “new deal”, “million worksites” and a “charter for the rights of working population”, there are problems that need to be tackled--the complex online registration process of MGNREGS through e-muster rolls, the looming cash crunch and limited banking facilities. Insufficient technological know-how among workers has been flagged as a major issue, leading development economists such as Reetika Khera to suggest resisting technocratisation, payments in hard cash and on-site registration of workers.

(Myadam and Ramesh are researchers at India Migration Now, a South East Migration Foundation Venture based in Mumbai, India.)

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