As the Covid-19 pandemic was leaving deep scars around the globe, it forced governments to take measures to protect citizens and ensure food security for its people. In India, initially, it looked as if the remote rural areas would skirt the pandemic. But soon, cases emerged in tribal areas as well as in semi-rural pockets following the return of the migrant workers, leading to social panic.
Covid-19, reverse migration and rural lives
Irregular income, lack of livelihood opportunities, pressure on resources with the return of migrants, difficulty in procuring agricultural inputs and decline in market demand have worsened the rural crisis. There is also increased uncertainty about wage employment in formal/ informal systems.
Estimates point to arrival of more than five lakh labourers back to Chhattisgarh as a fallout of the sudden lockdown. Several efforts are being made by the government, civil society organisations (CSOs), women led collectives, panchayati raj institution (PRI) members and the local administration to facilitate this process. These include provision of food and transport, creating shelters, and building awareness in the interior areas.
There is a high chance that the returnees might not want to return to cities anytime soon, thus short term measures might not be very effective. As a result, state governments are facing the twin challenges of preventing spread of disease in the short run and of accommodating them in the village economy in a productive manner in the long run.
A lot of these people had been gone for years and hence had very less social and economic footing in the villages, which increased their insecurities manifold. In such conditions, MGNREGA and agriculture can play an important role in integration of migrant labour in the rural economy.
MGNREGA, the single largest government sponsored scheme aimed at providing employment and reducing migration, if properly leveraged can provide some support to the labours who have returned to villages. This is possible only when communities and field staff have capacities to plan for their villages and are aware of the provisions made under the act for the most vulnerable sections of the society.
Additional allocation of 40,000 crores for MGNREGA is a welcome move but it might need an upward revision and higher allocation for areas with more returnee migrants. In Chhattisgarh, till now in financial year 2020-21, 873.13 lakhs person days have been generated, which is almost 65% of the total approved labour budget of 1350 lakhs (as on 27th June, 2020). This highlights the need to allocate more funds before the present budget is exhausted.
Accommodating migrants in the long run
With the sudden return of the migrants, it became difficult to gear up the rural economy to gainfully employ them. At present such possibilities exist only in the agriculture sector and MGNREGA, which engage large number of workers every year.
In Chhattisgarh, there is a provision of total 150 days of wage employment to all households where adults are willing to do unskilled labour work. The average days of employment provided per household was only 56, 57 and 52 in financial years 2019-2020, 2018-2019 and 2017-2018 respectively. This indicates that there is an immense scope to increase the average days of employment per household in the coming years.
Additionally, in 2019-20, only 10% of the households completed 100 days of employment and 776 gram panchayats had nil expenditure proving that the pace of implementation of work is not uniform across the panchayats and the full potential of the schemes is not being utilised in the present framework. The labour budget has also increased, from 900 lakhs to 1350 lakhs from 2016-17 to 2020-21 and in 2019-20 utilization of budget was 104.76% indicating the keen interest of rural communities in MGNREGA works.
If MGNREGA is used to enhance the abysmal irrigation facilities existing in the villages, it can change enhance the income of many farmers in the long run. It will also provide immediate employment and give them an opportunity to work within the village.
On ground implementation of MGNREGA can be further strengthened by -
- Increasing the limit for person days from 150 days to 200 days to ensure that each household has an opportunity to earn substantial amount
- Making work available at hamlet level and simplifying demand generation process so that more and more people engage on a regular basis
- Increasing budget allocations where high level of migration is expected to accommodate all the labours
Assetization through MGNREGA and opportunity for improved agriculture
Monsoons are about to start, and this time agricultural productivity will matter more to ensure availability of foodgrains for the entire year as other avenues of income will be disrupted due to Covid-19 menace. Strengthening farm and non-farm livelihoods can pave the way for food and nutritional security, which can be effective in fighting the pandemic and ensuring a robust rural economy.
Intense soil erosion from uplands and deposition in fertile lowlands further declines the agricultural productivity rendering the efforts put by farmers useless. Water harvesting structures, plantations, canals, and land development activities will lead to decrease in runoff, increase in water percolation, increased cropping intensity and effective usage of barren lands.
Additional measures to strengthen field level implementation
Some steps that can make MGNREGA a stronger weapon in fighting Covid-19:
Doorstep cash availability of MGNREGA payments
Financing of kharif is a capital intensive activity and involves procurement of inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and preparation of land for sowing. Cash is also needed for transportation and payment of labour involved in transplanting and weeding. In the present scenario, transportation from villages to banks and maintaining social distancing norms in the banks can be incredibly challenging.
Innovative ways for simplifying cash payments and transactions at bank are needed. MGNREGA payments should be made cash based instead of direct benefit transfer specifically in the interior areas where financial institutions are located faraway.
Secondly, Banking Correspondent and Bank Sakhi model should be strengthened. Model of Banking Correspondents as a link between banks and people has been successful in Telangana and can be replicated in Chhattisgarh. In this, people withdraw money on a need basis through digital transactions.
Investment in people
There is a need to develop systematic plans to build capacities of people and MGNREGA staff on key principles of watershed planning, water budgeting, utility of various watershed structures and simplify planning processes. It also helps community visualise the landscape level changes through the land and water treatment measures and increases the ownership towards the assets created.
Creation of ground level cadre, which is technically sound, will also ensure that MGNREGA is leveraged to create maximum potential for water harvesting and the benefits reach out to the most vulnerable families.
Migrants as agri-entrepreneurs and farmers collectivisation
Returnee migrants can be trained as resource persons for farm and non-farm livelihoods using resources from NRLM or collective resources. The capacity building and training can be done by the agriculture department officials and civil society organizations working in the region.
Another step which can improve the net output income is collectivisation of the farmers to farmer producer groups and formation of agriculture production clusters. Such approach will lend better bargaining power to farmers both during input procurement as well as during sale of produce. Scale and collective approach can drastically increase the net profit of farmers.
To deal with fluctuations in prices, farmers should have option of godowns and cold storage facilities, which can be developed at block level through convergence with MGNREGA. These long-term options can lead to productive engagement of the extra workforce that has returned to villages.
The following table presents a systematic picture of the role that can be played by different stakeholders in implementing above activities -
High impact mega watershed project and its relevance in Covid-19
A mega watershed project has been initiated by Chhattisgarh state government in collaboration with CSOs to increase income of 1 lakh small and marginal farmers through water conservation and land treatment measures. Supported by Axis Bank Foundation and Bharat Rural Livelihood Foundation, the project aims to strengthen the present systems and make them more people centric and robust.
Its focus is on building capacities of ground level functionaries involved in implementation and of the rural communities in planning on watershed principles and land restoration. Since the inception of the project, many trainings have been organised for CSO staff members, Rozgar Sahayaks, PRI representatives and self-help group members on various provisions under MGNREGA and watershed principles.
This project is being implemented in 26 blocks across 12 districts spread across central, north and south Chhattisgarh. Of the 26 blocks, 13 are intensive blocks where CSOs are directly engaged in field level community mobilisation and implementation of works with the MGNREGA cell.
The project uses ridge to valley approach in planning for water harvesting structures and for protective irrigation measures and uses water budget for assessing the overall water requirements in the village. CSOs have ensured that the 5 year plans with annual prioritisations are extensive and take account of concerns of vulnerable communities. For each gram panchayat, a detailed project report (DPR) is prepared with active participation of the community members outlining details of all the plans and beneficiaries.
Planning for works that can be carried out in monsoons under MGNREGA has also started and process of documentation is underway. Such phase wise planning for different seasons enables gram panchayats to open work throughout the year and reduces delay.
Emergence of integrated livelihoods
Access to water has enabled medium and small-scale farmers to diversify livelihoods and also explore non-traditional methods of income generation such as fishery and plantation activities. Fishery is gaining popularity in the project areas as the income is good and family can also use it for fulfilling nutritional needs of the families. In addition, goat rearing and backyard poultry has also emerged as new options for generating additional income and support is being extended for increasing its scale. Improved agriculture especially vegetable cultivation and millet cultivation is also being done by more and more farmers in the region.
Rural livelihoods majorly revolve around water availability which can be ensured by creating assets under MGNREGA. In a crisis like this, MGNREGA can play a pivotal role in providing employment as well in creation of large-scale assets which can improve agricultural productivity and ensure prosperity in villages for the years ahead.
There is a need to implement more mega watershed projects, which make community members and PRI representatives confident and provides them opportunities of rejuvenating their natural resources and strengthening livelihoods.
Sneha Kaushal is a rural development professional embedded within the State Project Management Unit set up under the High Impact Mega Watershed Project in Chhattisgarh set up by PRADAN and has experience of working with rural communities on livelihoods and MGNREGA. She was previously associated with the Aspirational District Program at NITI Aayog.
Ashutosh Nanda is the team leader of the PRADAN Narharpur team and has extensive experience of working with women self-help groups and has been instrumental in integrating watershed development with MGNREGA in in Chhattisgarh. In addition, he has led capacity-building activities in the region for SHG members and community resource persons.