Labourers struggling under coronavirus lockdown flock to AP for NREGA scheme; pay workers to stay home, say activists

Hema Vaishnavi

While many are voicing the issues faced by daily wage workers during the lockdown and with seven states across the country stopping work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) Act on their own, it seems like business as usual in Andhra Pradesh.

With finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announcing an increase in wages for NREGA workers, and no instructions from the Centre to halt work in states, Andhra Pradesh, which receives around 12 to 15 percent of the budget of the Centre's scheme, has seen an influx of daily wagers.

Those concerned about the coronavirus spreading say the nature of NREGA work is not conducive to keeping the disease from spreading.  Chankradhar, an activist and researcher from the state, said, "A large number of people gather for NREGA work, which could prove fatal. The instructions from the top seem to be 'work, but maintain a one metre distance.' But how can NREGA workers avoid physical contact?"

File image of MGNREGA workers. Reuters

File image of MGNREGA workers. Reuters

He further added that even vulnerable districts where COVID-19 cases have been reported are not exempt from carrying out the NREGA work. "This needs to be stopped and the workers should be paid wages for the missing days of work," Chankradhar said.

The activist group India Network for Basic Income, which made a presentation to Sitharaman highlighting this issue, recommended that labourers be kept off work sites, and that money be deposited into workers' accounts.

Sitharaman, in her address on 24 March, said the Central government is increasing the wages of the NREGA workers. The Rural Development Ministry, on 23 March issued a notification saying daily wage for the next financial year will be increased to Rs 237 from Rs 211.

While officials put the wage increase down to the outbreak, that really isn't the case, as data from previous years' can attest to. The increase in the daily wage is part of the annual adjustment for inflation.

Mylapalli Appalanarsa, of Munagapaka village, Vishakapatnam district, said,  "If the government provides help, we can sit at home but nobody has given us any instructions. Which government is ready to feed us without work? Who is going to look out for us and our livelihoods?"

The reason daily wagers are still flocking to NREGA work sites despite the coronavirus outbreak is because labourers want to complete their 100-day quota by the end of the fiscal year, said Chankradhar. Workers will stay home if the government is willing to pay for the days the workers skipped, he added.

The past week has seen workers flock to NREGA sites: 1.28 lakh on 19 March, 1.31 lakh on 20 March, 1.3 lakh on 21 March, 1 lakh on 23 March and 7 lakh on 24 March. On 25 March, in spite of Ugadi (Telugu New Year) NREGA works open in four districts saw 39,339 workers turn up. On 26 March, 2.3 lakh workers came to sites.

Labourers can apply for NREGA throughout the year, but in states, such work is usually done during the non-agriculture season: from the first week of February to well into May.

Balasubramaniyam, Additional Commissioner of NREGA in Andhra Pradesh, said workers will be engaged in activities such as horticulture, mending canals and housing (which have no inter-personal contact) and for which they are eligible for payment for a period of 90 days

However, he mentioned that representatives from Andhra Pradesh, following the actions of other states, sent a letter to the Central government seeking clarity on whether the works should continue during the outbreak.

On 27 March, the Minister for Panchayat Raj and Rural development of Andhra Pradesh, Ramachandra Reddy, wrote a letter to the Minister of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare and Minister of Rural Development, Narendra Singh Tomar, urging him to consider the plight of the NREGA workers.

Reddy urged the Union minister to release pending funding funds and take a decision on the continuation of the NREGA works. Andhra Pradesh labourers have not been getting their wages since 27 February, with Rs 382.85 crore pending.


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