More younger people are seeking jobs under the government’s flagship rural job guarantee scheme -- indicating the impact of the return of migrant labour from cities back home to the hinterland because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown imposed to slow its spread that stopped work at construction sites and factories around the country and also forced restaurants and retail stores to down shutters.
The month of April saw a tepid start of the world’s largest job programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), with 12.8 million households asking for work. Officials point out that a hard lockdown, lack of preparation at the state level and scarcity of workers led to low demand even as millions were stranded jobless as the Covid pandemic swept across India.
But as more Shramik special trains brought migrant workers back to their states, the demand for work jumped by 181% in May with 36.1 million households wanting work, according to official data. The railway ministry said it ran 4,286 Shramik special trains to bring back over 5.8 million migrant workers to their state of domicile from cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi.
In the first week of June, the MGNREGS dashboard shows that 19.6 million families have asked for work, signalling further rise in the demand as the harvest season is over and hardly anyone is returning to their workplace.
With younger workers having returned to their villages, their participation in MGNREGS has increased.
Among the people employed in the flagship job programme this year, 31.1% are in the 31-40 years age group. And another 30% in the 41-50 age bracket. For last year, the corresponding figures were 29.5% and 29.6%.
As the participation of younger workers—mostly those who returned from cities—increases, the proportion of workers in the age group 51-60 years has reduced to 19.3% as against 20.2% of the last year.
The drop in percentage terms is small, but across tens of millions of households, the change in absolute terms is significant. For instance, across 10 million people, a 1% point difference will mean 100,000 people.
“The established pattern in MGNREGS was that while young men would leave for cities in search of more lucrative jobs, the women or the elder people in the family would opt for the government’s job scheme to earn additional money. This year, we are witnessing some changes in this pattern,” said an official.
The flagship job scheme, once criticized by a section of the politicians for rampant corruption, has emerged as the main source of income for the rural poor in this distress. The government too, has pumped in an unprecedented Rs 1.01 lakh crore in the programme and aims to generate 3 billion person days of work to help jobless migrant labourers in their villages.
Among the states, Bihar, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Odisha Punjab, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh have witnessed massive demand for work. Officials pointed out that while large parts of Maharashtra and Rajasthan have now been reopened from lockdown allowing MGNREGS work, the other states have seen large-scale return of migrant workers.