Patna: Balmiki Kumar’s previous and current jobs are vastly different. For five years, Kumar, 33, taught geography at a private school in Hilsa, a town in central Bihar’s Nalanda district. He now works as a plantation labourer under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). That, however, is not the only difference. In his earlier job, he got paid.

“The school shut after the lockdown in March and I lost my job,” Kumar told IndiaSpend on a recent October day in his village of Balrampur, 5 km from Hilsa.

The countrywide lockdown imposed on March 24 to contain the spread of COVID-19 resulted in large-scale job losses in both the formal and informal sectors. Economic activity came to a standstill, triggering an exodus of migrant workers from employment hubs in urban India to their villages. Bihar alone accounted for 14.3% of over 10 million migrant workers who returned to their home states.

In May, the central government allotted Rs 1 lakh crore ($13.8 billion) to MGNREGS to boost employment in villages. In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched the Rs 50,000 crore ($6.8 billion) Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA) to provide work over three months to returnee migrant workers in six states, including Bihar. MGNREGS is a component of the scheme.

MGNREGS was a ray of hope for both returnee migrant workers and resident workers like Balmiki Kumar who lost their livelihoods in Bihar, said Sanjay Sahni, an MGNREGS activist who is contesting the state’s upcoming assembly elections from Muzaffarpur in central Bihar.

Kumar said he was relieved to get plantation work in June under MGNREGS. He, however, has not yet received his wages under the scheme. “It has been four months,” said Kumar, “I was hoping MGNREGS would sustain my family during the lockdown, but we are struggling.”

Balmiki Kumar, 33, lost his teaching job Hilsa, in Nalanda district, Bihar after the COVID-19 lockdown. He found plantation work under MGNREGS in June, but has yet to receive any wages.

Many migrants and local workers say they are struggling to find work under MGNREGS, or elsewhere. Many are planning to return to cities, as 57-year-old Mohammad Raqib, resident of Dumaria village in Araria district, did in September: “I hoped to stay in my village for a while, but needed work to be able to do so.”

Bihar has highest share of Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan districts

The exodus of migrants began soon after the lockdown closed urban job sites. April saw a 30% fall in employment across India, equalling a loss of 122 million jobs compared to the average during 2019-20, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE).

Bihar accounted for 1.5 million--14.3%--of the 10.5 million migrant workers who returned to their home states, the central government told the Lok Sabha on September 14 (see figure below). Over 10.6 million migrant workers returned to their home state during the period March to June, the government said on September 22.

The central government, however, may not have counted all the returnee migrants to Bihar, say experts. Bihar had approximately 3 million--double the government figure--migrant workers returning, Nikhil R.G. of the United Nations Children's Fund, who has been working closely with the Bihar government on returnee migrants, told IndiaSpend.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the GKRA on June 20 during a video call with villagers in Bihar’s Khagaria district, one of the 116 districts listed under the scheme. Under the 125-day scheme, Rs 50,000 crore ($6.8 billion) would be spent for building rural infrastructure in 116 districts “with a large concentration of returnee migrant workers” in six states--Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Odisha. The main aim of the scheme was to provide work--including under MGNREGS--over three months to returnee migrants in their own villages.

Bihar had the most number of districts--32--identified for GKRA implementation. It also had the highest percentage (84%) of districts under the scheme, compared to other states.

GKRA had generated 336 million days of work and spent Rs 33,378 crore ($4.6 billion) amounting to 66.7% of the total allocation as of October 16--118 days after launch--according to Ministry of Rural Development data. While a state-wise break-up of allocation and expenditure is not provided, Bihar accounts for 28% of the 116 districts currently listed under the Abhiyan.

No GKRA boost for MGNREGS in Bihar

In May and June, return migration pushed up the demand for work under MGNREGS to its highest level since 2013-14. Up to 24.2 million rural households were demanding work in August 2020, a 66% increase from August 2019, IndiaSpend reported in September.

The Rs 1 lakh crore ($13.8 billion) that the Centre allocated to MGNREGS was just 0.47% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), noted People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), a countrywide network of activists who advocate for strengthening MGNREGS implementation, in its ‘NREGA Implementation Tracker’ report in July. [Rs 1 lakh crore is equivalent to 0.5% of India’s GDP of Rs 204.42 lakh crore ($2.78 trillion) for 2019-20, IndiaSpend has calculated]. For the scheme to run robustly, the report said, “World Bank Economists Murgai and Ravallion have argued that 1.7% of the GDP needs to be allocated”--or nearly Rs 3.5 lakh crore, 3.5 times the amount actually allocated.

Of the Rs 1 lakh crore, states had spent 43% (Rs 43,717 crore) in the first quarter of 2020-21 (by June) itself, according to the PAEG NREGA Tracker. States that saw high numbers of returning migrant workers were particularly struggling for funds, the report said.

Bihar had used up over 91% of its allocation of Rs 2,886 crore ($393 million) in the first quarter alone, and had only 8.45% left. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh had also used up over 91%, and Rajasthan over 85% of their MGNREGS funds (see table below). “The central government needs to release funds on a priority basis,” to such states to avoid delay of wage payments to workers, the report noted.

Before the second quarter ended, Bihar’s MGNREGS fund had a negative balance of Rs 159 crore, according to PAEG’s separate ‘NREGA in Bihar’ report dated August 31, which could explain why workers like Balmiki Kumar have yet to receive wages.

The GKRA “at the very least… should boost NREGA implementation in the selected districts”, said the report. There was, however, “no observable difference” in MGNREGS employment between GKRA districts and non-GKRA districts” in Bihar, it added.

Introduced in 2005 to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed employment each year to every rural household in India, the MGNREGS promise has remained only on paper in Bihar, said Sahni. “It has failed to provide livelihood to the people in their time of need,” he told IndiaSpend.

The delayed payments, however, had “nothing to do” with Bihar’s negative balance, C.P. Khanduja, the state’s MGNREGS commissioner, told IndiaSpend. “There are two parts of MGNREGS funds. One is wages, the other is materials. For one person day, the wage rate is Rs 194 and the material cost is Rs 342. The negative balance pertains to the material cost. We have made 85% of the wage payment on time,” he claimed.

Balmiki Kumar, meanwhile, has had to borrow Rs 20,000 from his relatives to run his household. During the monsoon, he said, his elderly mother had to work as an agricultural labourer, getting 6 kg of rice or Rs 150 per day as wages. “This ensured we have rice at home, otherwise, we would have starved,” he said.

The Centre has allotted Rs 2,784 crore ($380 million) to Bihar up to October 13 for the wage payments under MGNREGS, said Khanduja. “Rs 175 crore is remaining,” he added. “We are likely to get the second instalment soon.”

Short of MGNREGS funds, Bihar could stop registering more demand for work

Delayed disbursal of MGNREGS funds to states like Bihar could worsen India’s unemployment crisis, said Saurav Kumar, regional manager, Bihar and Jharkhand, for Action Aid, a non-profit group working with marginalised communities. “The distress is at a stage where all the labour surplus states in India would face serious consequences,” he told IndiaSpend, adding that unless there is an intervention, Bihar could see a rise in child labour and child marriages.

If GKRA states remain starved for funds, state officials could stop registering more demand for MGNREGS work, the PAEG NREGA Implementation Tracker warned.

Mandi Devi, 38, from Rampur Kodarkatti village in eastern Bihar’s Araria district, attested that this has happened. Mandi Devi has not received even a day’s work under MGNREGS since the lockdown was eased on June 1, she said. “I have five children, and my husband lost his job with a private company after the lockdown. We desperately need work,” she said. “In my village, 130 of us have MGNREGS job cards. We were told to submit our Aadhaar card, bank account and job card details. But nothing has happened.”

Mandi Devi, 38, from Rampur Kodarkatti village in Araria district, Bihar, along with 129 other villagers applied for MGNREGS work to feed her family of seven. She has not received a day’s work since June 1.

Mandi Devi’s story is corroborated by the PAEG report. Bihar had issued job cards to 1.1 million households under MGNREGS--13.5% of India’s 8.1 million--between April 1 and August 31, the report noted. However, merely 2,132 Bihar households managed to complete 100 days of work by August 31. Madhya Pradesh, with a similar MGNREGS fund utilisation, had 33,639 households completing 100 days of work in the same period. Rajasthan recorded 27,392 such households.

Bihar had issued another 230,000 job cards by October 15, a 20% increase, according to MGNREGS data. Yet, only 4,551 households had completed 100 days of work by mid-October, just 0.4% of the 1.1 million such households across India. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh had 97,882 (8.3%) and 72,839 (6.2%), respectively, in the same period.

Rejected wages and unemployment allowance dues mount

In Mandi Devi’s Araria district, 1,854 job cards in one block alone were eligible for unemployment allowance amounting to nearly Rs 18 lakh, PAEG’s Bihar tracker noted. Workers who do not get employment under NREGA within 15 days of demanding work are entitled to an unemployment allowance. The amount, however, “has not been calculated at all, let alone paid”, said PAEG.

Besides not counting unemployment allowance, Bihar’s pending rejected wages stand at Rs 36.02 crore from 148,000 transactions “for no fault of the workers”, according to PAEG’s Bihar tracker. Workers’ wages can be rejected for various reasons, such as Aadhaar number not matching with their bank account number. Since 2016-17, Bihar’s total transactions that are stuck without resolution stand at 650,000 and the amount involved is Rs 134.8 crore. Of that amount, 26% accumulated in the first five months of 2020-21.

While the pending rejected wages would be sorted out because it mostly entails ironing out technical glitches, the unemployment allowance in the PAEG report was unfairly calculated, said Khanduja. Confirming that a worker is eligible for unemployment allowance if they ask for work and do not get it, he added, however, “If the worker asks for work, and does not take it up after being offered, then that worker is not eligible for the unemployment allowance. Many of the migrant workers that have returned home are skilled. They are reluctant to do unskilled labour,” he said.

As many as 5.33 million persons in Bihar had applied for work during 2020-21, as per MGNREGS data as of October 16. Of these, 5.31 million had been offered work, and 4.26 million were actually provided work.

Bihar’s approved budget was 180 million person-days, added Khanduja. “Do the math by multiplying it with wages and material cost [Rs 536],” he said. It comes up to Rs 9,648 crore. “We have requested the Centre to increase the budget to 30 crore [300 million] person-days because we have already done 12.5 crore [12 million] person days,” he told IndiaSpend.

Migrant workers will return to cities

“Unemployment or the status of returned migrant workers” was the most important issue in Bihar’s upcoming assembly elections for around 25% of respondents, a survey by polling agency Cvoter found in September. The survey was conducted among 2,100 respondents from all 243 assembly seats in Bihar starting the third week of September. The state is set to vote in three phases, beginning October 28.

Treatment of migrant workers will definitely weigh on voters’ minds when the state goes to polls, said D.M. Diwakar, director, AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. “Bihar is a politically vibrant state,” he said. “The migrant workers are vocal and furious about the way the migrant crisis has unfolded, particularly youngsters who form a large chunk of the migrant workers. They would be the critical factor in the upcoming assembly elections,” Diwakar told IndiaSpend.

“This government has completely ignored education and employment,” said Mandi Devi. “There are no industries in Bihar. There is no work. Why would so many people leave the state and work in cities otherwise?”

It has been 15 years since Nitish Kumar has been in power, but not many industries have come up, said Rahul Kumar, 29, while waiting for work at the Sipara bridge informal “labour chowk” in state capital Patna. “It took me 13 days to walk back from Mumbai after the lockdown was announced with just four hours’ notice,” he told IndiaSpend. “My brother died in an accident while he was returning to Bihar,” he added, asking, “Who is responsible for that?”

Elections in Bihar, however, are always complex where more than one issue is at play, added Diwakar. “Identity politics is strong in Bihar,” he said. “Local caste equations cannot be discounted. But anti-incumbency is palpable and the migrant crisis has played a crucial role in it.”

Migrant workers would also have to be present in Bihar during polling in order to vote. Many returnees are waiting to return to work in the cities only after Diwali (November 14) and Chhat Pooja (November 20) festivals, said ActionAid’s Saurav Kumar. The second and third phases of Bihar’s assembly election are on November 3 and November 7, respectively. “But many workers have already left, with no work opportunities in Bihar and delayed payments under MGNREGS. They won’t have any bearing on the polls,” he added.

Among those who have returned to the city is Mohammad Raqib, 57, resident of Dumaria village in Araria district. “I painted houses in Delhi for a living,” he told IndiaSpend. “After lockdown, I held out for over two months on charity.” Raqib returned to Dumaria in June on one of the Shramik (labourer) trains started by the Union government to facilitate movement of stranded migrant workers.

Back in his village, he did not get any work to get by. Under MGNREGS, a narrow lane leading up to a village had to be levelled with soil, said Raqib. “We started work and the owner of a nearby field objected the next day,” he said. “The work stopped. I did not get any work after that.”

In the last week of September, Raqib took the bus back to Delhi. He did not want to. “But if my village cannot provide me over a day’s work in four months, what else can I do?”

Raqib found a job harvesting rice in Haryana’s Karnal district, 120 km from Delhi. “There are 12 of us working in rice fields,” he said. “The contract of Rs 5,500 per day is to be divided among us [less than Rs 500 per worker]. The harvesting will be done next month. I will then go home to vote, if the trains restart.”

The COVID-19 lockdown forced painter Mohammad Raqib, 57, (centre) to return home to Dumaria, Bihar from Delhi. Unable to find work for four months, Raqib could not find painting work again in Delhi either. He now harvests rice in Karnal, Haryana

Raqib has been migrating for decades now. “It is taxing, but the current situation is such that even those who have never migrated before might leave Bihar due to loss of jobs,” he said.

Raqib could well be talking about the teacher, Balmiki Kumar. “I will have to migrate if nothing works out,” said Kumar. For now, he is still looking after the saplings he planted in June, for nothing in return. “I do not have anything else to do. It makes me feel like I have a job.”

Correction: The story was updated to correct the age of Mohammad Raqib. We regret the error.

(Parth MN is a principal correspondent at IndiaSpend. Ray is an independent contributor. Shreehari Paliath contributed to this story.)

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