Kolkata: Three months ago, the state of Jharkhand made headlines when Chief Minister Hemant Soren chartered flights to get migrant labourers stranded in other parts of the country under the lockdown back home. Soren himself went to Ranchi airport to receive the returning labourers, and earned his administration praise for its “humaneness”.
But the same workers are now pushing to return to their places of employment, despite the Jharkhand government’s efforts to generate jobs for these labourers by launching new schemes.
Many of these workers have hardly any money, are still waiting for their former employers to clear their dues, and are struggling to get work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, commonly known as MGNREGA. There are also the issues of low wages and delayed payments that are driving the migrants, who used to earn a lot more in other places, away from the scheme.
ThePrint spoke to over a dozen such labourers across the districts of Jharkhand, and the common refrain was an inability to feed their families. Some have already got tickets booked by their employers, while others are making desperate efforts to contact theirs.
Jharkhand Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh told ThePrint the government has tried its best to provide jobs to all six lakh migrant workers who returned. But the dependence on MGNREGA has not worked out for labourers whose wages had been three times the daily wage of Rs 194, say activists like James Herenj of the Jharkhand NREGA Watch.
“The state government has the political will to provide jobs. But on the ground, many migrants are still struggling to get jobs. The government also wants the migrant labours to stay back, but one can look at the wage — it is Rs 194 per day. A skilled labourer earns at least three to four times more than this in cities,” Herenj said.
“The government is yet to come up with other employment generation schemes with better wages. So, there are not many livelihood options, forcing the workers to go back to the cities from where they returned,” he added.
No job here, is it safe to return?
Devender Hembram, a tribal worker from Chaibasa in East Singhbhum district, said he felt “blessed” when he got an opportunity to board a plane, but now wants to go back to Delhi to work.
“Boarding a plane felt like a dream to me. I used to work as a construction labourer and earn Rs 300 per day, but the contractor is yet to pay wages for the 15 days of work that I did before leaving the city. I thought I would never go back, but I am not able to feed my family,” said Hembram, who came back home in May.
“Has the Covid infection subsided in Delhi? Is it safe to return?” he asked this reporter.
Hembram claimed he went to the local panchayat office several times, demanding a job under the MGNREGA, but is yet to get the one that was promised.
Lalmohan Singh, a 50-year-old worker from Simdega district, returned by air from Mumbai, where he used to work as a plumber in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and earn Rs 700 per day.
“There were thousands of Covid cases in Mumbai and, after a month of lockdown, we did not have any money left. So I decided to return. The contractor is yet to pay Rs 20,000 of my dues. After I returned, I sought a job from the panchayat, but they are offering Rs 194 per day. This is less than one-third of what I used to earn. My wife is sick and I need money,” Singh said.
“I agreed to work under MGNREGA, but I am yet to get that job. I have no idea when the panchayat will call us for a job. So, I will return to Mumbai. The contractor has booked a ticket,” he said.
Addressing the fear of Covid infection, he added: “Not all people died in Covid. Here, we are anyway not being able to earn a living. I have no job for the last three months.”
The story is no different for Riyaz Ansari, Shabnam and Sohail from Koderma district, who worked as autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai. They wanted to stay put in Jharkhand, but earned nothing in the last three months, so they have run out of money and are now desperate to return.
‘Launching new schemes takes time’
Another issue being highlighted is that of active job cards. In Jharkhand, every household is entitled to have a job card for MGNREGA, and any member of the household can demand a job if they have it. The job card is considered active if members of the household have worked for four consecutive financial years, including the current one.
However, figures from the Ministry of Rural Development show that only 25.63 lakh out of Jharkhand’s 53.36 lakh job cards are active — less than half. In all, Jharkhand has 91.75 lakh registered workers, of which 33.26 lakh are active as on 18 August 2020.
Sidharth Tripathi, Jharkhand’s MGNREGA Commissioner, told ThePrint that the annual average number of workers demanding employment under the scheme is 18 lakh.
“During the peak season, April to June, we get around 3.5 lakh persons reporting and completing 100 days of work. But this year, due to the lockdown and with the migrant population back in the state, we got around 8 lakh reporting to work in two months, May and June,” Tripathi said.
“We provide jobs to all who want, but the skilled labourers want higher wages, which they earned outside,” he said.
To combat this problem, the state government has engaged about 2,500 NGOs to counsel the migrants who have returned.
In addition, the Jharkhand government is also planning to introduce new employment schemes under other departments like labour and urban development, said Aradhana Patnaik, secretary of the rural development department.
“We have introduced many new schemes, and our work is on. It is a huge migrant population and we are trying to address all issues,” she said.
Chief Secretary Sukhdev Singh added: “We have got over six lakhs migrants back to the state. We are trying to generate new employment schemes and also provide jobs under MGNREGA. But it takes time.”