The lockdown imposed to contain the spread of Covid-19 is taking a toll on the livelihood of workers dependent on MGNREGA wages
Shoby Krishna G
Sivakasi: The lockdown imposed to contain Covid-19 is affecting workers dependent on MGNREGA for livelihood. They are left without any alternative source of income and livelihood in the villages surrounding Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district, Tamil Nadu.
Seethalakshmi S, a senior citizen of Melaottampatti village near Sivakasi, said: “Though wages for March have been credited to my bank account, I have not been able to go to the nearest bank to withdraw money. My husband is very old. We manage with the wages he earns from MGNREGA work. Now I depend on my son and relatives.”
Savithri V, another resident of the same village, shared: “I work under MGNREGA for at least 20 days in a month and earn around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 from it. My husband earns Rs 3,000 a month working as a priest. Ever since the lockdown began, there is no work and no income for the household. We are barely sustaining ourselves.”
Uma Maheshwari K, an employment guarantee assistant appointed for the scheme, said: “Most of the harvesting is done by March. Agricultural workers usually demand work under MGNREGA or work in the neighbouring fireworks-manufacturing companies after harvesting.”
“The lockdown has left these people in the lurch as they don’t have work under the scheme or work in the nearby factories. For the first week of March, Rs 160 was given as wages; for the last two weeks, Rs 140 was paid.”
In villages under Sivakasi taluk, cultivation of rabi crops such as maize, horsetail millet, and paddy begins in October and ends in March. Since agricultural workers are not permanent employees in the factories, they have not received any relief such as half their salaries or provisions like rice, dal and oil.
Govindammal, a resident of Mettamalai village, shared a similar story. “People who worked under the scheme in this village have not received their wages even for the month of February. I am a widow, and my son and daughter-in-law make just enough money to sustain their family. So the wages from this work help me to survive. Because of the lockdown, I don’t have any choice other than depending on my son.”
Asked about pending wages, Murugan R, an employment guarantee assistant of Mettamalai village, Sattur taluk, said: “I joined work only a few days ago. On April 11, I wrote to the block development office for wages to be credited into bank accounts of 258 members. Since the lockdown, all ongoing work has been stopped and no new demands for work requests have been taken.”
After the lockdown came into effect, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on March 26, 2020, announced an economic relief package that includes a hike of Rs 20 in MGNREGA wages. The Tamil Nadu government announced extra wages for two days as a relief measure.
The Hindu BusinessLine on March 29, 2020, reported that despite the hike in wages by the Centre, wages under the scheme still remain at least 40% below minimum wages. A wage revision was due in March irrespective of the Covid-19 crisis. The report pointed out that the hike rate was different across states.
On April 4, 2020, PIL was filed in the Supreme Court to direct authorities to ensure full wages to MGNREGA workers during the lockdown period.
Venkatesh Athreya, a retired economics professor at Bharathidasan University, Tamil Nadu, said: “The government should transfer Rs 20,000, being the total wages for 100 days of work at a wage of Rs.200 per day, to benefit MGNREGA households immediately. If they are going to extend the lockdown by two weeks, they should provide at least Rs 5,000 per household and foodgrains for the coming two weeks. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the poor to survive.”
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, aims to provide security of work and livelihood by ensuring a minimum of 100 days of manual unskilled work in a year for those who demand work. This scheme aims to ensure a safety net for seasonal workers such as agricultural labourers. The scheme, whose allocation was decreased in the 2020 budget, provides right to work in rural areas.