By Manoj Kumar Singh
The year 2020 has been a difficult one for India. The Covid-19 pandemic not only posed an acute challenge to people’s health, it also had a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods. The countrywide lockdown imposed to prevent the spread of the virus brought about unprecedented economic stress. No economic sector remained unaffected, but the impact was especially severe on poor and unskilled workers. Governments and institutions across the world looked for ways in which they could counter the devastating economic impact of the pandemic, especially on the millions of poor migrants who were forced to move back home.
For a large state like Uttar Pradesh, the challenges posed were even greater. The state’s dense population combined with the fact that a large part of the state’s population works in other states across India meant that the state faced a sudden influx of migrants who needed urgent economic relief. Media reports suggest that an estimated 1.17 crore migrant workers returned to their native place during the lockdown, and 26% of these workers were from UP. Looking at early signs of this migration in April 2020, the UP government proactively instituted strategies to accommodate the imminent surge in unskilled labour.
During this period of overwhelming crisis, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the demand-driven wage employment scheme aimed at providing employment within the gram panchayat of a job card holder, proved to be an extremely effective safety net. As over 34 lakh migrants returned to UP, mostly to rural villages of the state, the MGNREGS was effective in providing them with work avenues necessary for them to sustain through the pandemic.
The UP government quickly ramped up arrangements for starting multiple worksites in 58,000 gram panchayats across the state. A dedicated Migrants’ Support Cell was established within the Department of Rural Development which worked with the MGNREGS State Cell to ensure that ample number of worksites were active in each block and gram panchayat to absorb the newly-created job demand. As the return of migrant workers intensified in the months of April to June 2020, the MGNREGS State Cell, its district and block units and the especially constituted migrants’ support cell worked together to turn this migrant crisis into an opportunity for local employment for the migrants.
The rainy season is traditionally a lean period for MGNREGS work, but given the increased availability of labour, UP registered almost 9 crore person-days in 125 days under the newly-formulated Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan (GKRA). An all-time national record was established, with 62 lakh workers engaged under the MGNREGS on a single day on June 26, 2020. Meticulous planning by the government coupled with micro-monitoring helped to ensure that ample work was available to anyone who wanted it throughout the state. As a result of this, FY2020-21 saw the highest ever person-days of employment generated. With 39.48 crore person-days of employment being generated, it represented an increase of 63% over the previous financial year. The number of households provided with employment witnessed an even higher growth of almost 78% with 94.52 lakh households being provided employment under the scheme in UP. The most significant growth was seen in the number of families provided with the full 100 days of wage employment that the MGNREGS guarantees. This number grew over five times, increasing from 1.33 lakh in 2019-20 to 7.83 lakh in 2020-21.
Through special efforts and drives, the state also increased the participation of women to 13.26 crore in 2020-21, against 8.38 crore in 2019-20. Similarly, dedicated efforts helped increase the participation of SC/ST workers in the MGNREGS to 12.31 crore person-days, which was double the number of 7.44 crore in 2019-20. These indicators represent the success of the equitable, empowering and inclusive approach adopted by the state.
By realigning the scheme for rapid expansion and ensuring better infrastructural outcomes from the employment generated under the scheme, the state converted barriers to opportunities, providing relief to the migrants affected by the economic impacts of the pandemic while also creating lasting infrastructure.
During this period, the MGNREGS made a big impact in two new areas that will prove to be of great significance in developing the villages of UP in the coming years. The first area the state focused on was the construction of panchayat bhawans in all 58,000 gram panchayats. As the construction of these panchayat bhawans is completed, they are serving as village secretariat offices that open regularly, and housing common service centres and Business Correspondent-Sakhis, ensuring that administrative and financial services are offered within the villages.
The second area of focus was the construction of community sanitation complexes (CSC) that help in providing clean and hygienic sanitation facilities in villages to strengthen the drive for an Open Defecation Free (ODF) state. The state decided to hand over the maintenance of these CSCs to Self-Help Groups, which wouldn’t just ensure that the complexes are well-maintained, but would also provide lasting employment to one woman in each of the 58,000 villages at a salary of Rs 9,000 per month.
These transformative steps taken in UP resulted in the highest increase in the usage of funds available under the MGNREGS in the entire country for both the payment of wages and for the procurement of materials for the creation of durable assets. This led to UP topping all states in fund utilisation under the scheme (see table).
Beyond providing relief to migrants at a time of economic crisis through wages under the MGNERGS, the changes made to the programme have also made it more inclusive with a greater focus on creating lasting assets. The creation of village secretariats and community sanitation complexes using the huge surplus labour pool available in UP’s villages during the pandemic has the potential to transform both the administration and sanitation in villages of UP.
The author is additional chief secretary to the Government of Uttar Pradesh, heading the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj departments