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MGNREGA, skill-based work — options states are weighing to help returning migrant workers

With revenues drying up due to a halt in economic activities, states say providing livelihoods to the migrants won’t be economically sustainable for long.

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New Delhi: With lakhs of migrant workers headed home, states have a mammoth task at hand — to provide them with a stable income until they return to the cities where they worked before the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed. 

States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha and Chhattisgarh will see many of their residents returning home and are looking at various options to provide them with livelihoods. 

In rural areas, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) will be the main fulcrum to provide jobs to the migrant workers. In urban areas, depending on what skills the workers have, the administration will try to engage them in respective fields.

But with revenues drying up for the states due to a complete halt in economic activities, providing livelihoods and wages to the huge number of returning migrants may not be economically sustainable for a long period of time. 

Many of the states ThePrint spoke to said they are initiating steps to provide work to the migrant labourers but admit that these are at best “short-term measures”.

Also read: If Railways refuses, make PM CARES pay fare: Swamy calls govt ‘moronic’ for charging migrants

MGNREGA, MSME, dairy jobs

A senior Bihar government official, who did not want to be named, told ThePrint that if all the 30 lakh migrant workers who are residents of the state return home, it will be difficult for the local administration to sustain them for a long period of time.

Uttar Pradesh, which is bringing back 15 lakh migrant workers from different states, has chalked out a plan to employ them based on their skills.

Uttar Pradesh’s Additional Chief Secretary, Home and Information, Awanish Awasthi told ThePrint, “Our chief minister has already directed us to take measures to provide livelihood to migrant workers who have returned from other states.”

“Those living in rural areas would be given work under MGNREGA while in urban areas depending on skills they have, the government will engage them in MSME sector, dairy societies, women self-help groups, among others,” he added.

Jharkhand and Odisha, which have a predominantly rural economy, will also be taking the MGNREGA route to absorb the large labour force expected to return to the state in the coming weeks.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren Monday announced three special state initiatives to provide stable income support to rural families, which are out of work, returning migrant workers and daily wage earners.

“The state government is aiming to generate three crore person days of work under MGNREGA in the next three months to provide work to at least 15-20 lakh rural households,” an official in the CM’s office told ThePrint.

However, it’s not all hunky dory for the migrants.

‘Short-term measures’

Senior state government officials admitted that providing for this huge labour force is going to be an uphill task, at a time when the states’ own fiscal position is very constrained.

The Bihar government official mentioned above said though they are planning to provide livelihood under MGNREGA in rural areas and other local development works such as laying footpath and roads in urban areas, these are at best short-term measures. 

“If these people decide to stay for a longer period, we will have to rethink. It’s a challenge for us,” the official said.

It’s not only the migrant workers’ home states that are facing challenges in providing them with livelihoods and financial support.

Industrial and agriculture-dependent states such as Maharashtra, Kerala, Telangana, Punjab and Haryana are also looking at an uncertain future with large numbers of migrant workers leaving for their home and no clarity on when they will return.

Return of the migrants a crisis 

A senior official in the Maharashtra government said the state is not sure how to meet the huge labour gap.

“It will adversely impact industries and small businesses. The migrant workers formed a large workforce in the state. Overnight, how do we provide back up to the industries and the informal sector where they worked?” said the official, who did not want to be named.

Until last Wednesday, the official said, nearly 35,000 migrant labourers who were working in the state, have been sent back to their native places as the Centre allowed them to return home by train.                                             

Union Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba in a meeting with all state and UT chief secretaries Monday emphasised that the first priority should be to send back the migrant workers home who are stranded.

A senior Haryana government official told ThePrint that Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar has already held meetings with labour unions in the states and impressed upon them to tell the migrant workers to stay back.

“This is one of the main reasons that we have opened the industries in the state so that migrant labourers stay. Those who are stranded in between cities will go, but at least those who are living in the state can join back work. Otherwise, we are heading for a crisis,” said the official, who did not want to be named.

Also read: Bihar ready with 7,500 hotel rooms to screen 25 lakh returning migrants: Health minister


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