Union Budget: War on rural India’s lifeline continues

Union Budget: War on rural India’s lifeline continues
Workers load harvested sugarcane onto a trailer in a field in Gove village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, November 10, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Rajendra Jadhav/File Photo

In 2019, Amravati in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region was honoured with a national award for the significant achievement of generating employment opportunities under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) while also making the effort to create basic infrastructural amenities under the scheme for the promotion of water conservation, plantation and environment in the underdeveloped pockets of the district.

Amravati district collector Shailesh Nawal, who along with his team of officers received the award from Union rural development minister Narendrasingh Tomar at a glittering ceremony in New Delhi, informed that a target of 78.81 lakh human days' employment generation was kept for the year 2018-19 focusing on preventing migration from the district and establishing basic amenities. Against the set target, the district achieved 108 per cent success rate – generating 84.84 lakh human days' employment with 100 days of assured employment for a total of 25,950 families.

A special focus while implementing the Centre’s employment guarantee scheme was preventing the large scale migration from the district’s Melghat region bordering Madhya Pradesh. As many as 11,192 people there were employed on MGNREGS sites during that year bringing down the number of people moving out of the area in search of work significantly.

For those unfamiliar with Melghat, it is a remote, grossly underdeveloped area nestled in the picturesque Satpura hills bordering Madhya Pradesh. Located some 700 km east of Mumbai, it is better known as a tiger reserve, but is also notorious for its high malnutrition and child mortality rates, especially among the impoverished Korku Adivasis who make up about three-fourths of Melghat’s population of 303,480, according to the 2011 census.

Melghat, along with the other Adivasi dominated districts of Nandurbar and Palghar, has been known as the hunger bowl of Maharashtra since the late 1980s. Though governments tend to under-report them, an estimated 10000 children reportedly died of malnutrition-related issues in the area between 1993 and 2009.

In popular parlance, poverty is synonymous with malnutrition. The high malnutrition and child mortality rates should decline as countries or societies move up the income ladder. But India’s growth story has had little impact on poverty levels in areas like Melghat.

By the late 1990s, Melghat had become a national symbol for malnutrition, just as Kalahandi in Odisha had for starvation in the previous decade. The debates in the national media, legislative chambers, parliament and courts painted a picture of official neglect and abandonment.

In 1997, the Bombay High Court passed an interim order ruling, in line with the Constitution of India, that it was the responsibility of governments, both in Maharashtra and at the Centre, to provide adequate food, health care and employment opportunities to the Korkus of Melghat to combat poverty and its related ills.

MGNREGS, which was conceived by the previous UPA government as its flagship programme, was introduced early-on in Amravati district, in 2006, to help curb mass migration by providing a minimum amount of paid work. There are clear indicators that this ‘right to work,’ first recognized and introduced by the Manmohan Singh government, helped to curb poverty and malnourishment, even if somewhat unevenly.

In 2011, the local and national media reported on the region’s MGNREGS success story, which came to be known as the ‘Melghat pattern’. The Press Information Bureau used this phrase to highlight the “success story with few parallels”. Implemented in all 325 villages in the Chikhaldara and Dharni tehsils, the scheme had clicked like nowhere else, it said.

It was claimed by the government that in all of Melghat’s villages, farmers had better and more frequent yields, borrowing from moneylenders had decreased, and there had been a 50 per cent drop in migrations. More importantly, all this put together had a positive impact on the area’s child mortality rate, which had halved since the 1990s – some 72 children were stillborn or died before the age of six for every 1,000 live births recorded in 2010-2011.

Subsequent studies of the Melghat pattern found that MGNREGS had the potential to improve sustainable livelihoods, besides transform rural economy and social relations at many levels if implemented properly. The sustained efforts of the Amravati administration resulted in the district winning the national award in 2019.

But ever since the COVID-19 lockdown from March 2020, the spectre of unemployment has returned to stalk Melghat, said government officers and social activists from the district. Adding to the population’s woes is the Union finance minister’s Budget speech which did not even mention the MGNREGS.

The Narendra Modi government’s dislike for the scheme, often described as a lifeline of rural India is well known. Ridiculing the right to work as a waste of government expenditure, the prime minister had called it a waste of money and manpower on digging pits. Instead, the government reposed its faith in the potential of the corporate sector to generate jobs in the real economy.

In this undated handout picture provided by non-governmental organisation Save the Children on October 5, 2009, Indian parent Somvati gives water to her youngest daughter Muni, who is malnourished withouth her mother's knowledge, in Melghat, Maharastra state. Photo: AFP/HO/Save the Children/Madhuri Dass HO / AFP

Unfortunately, the results have been quite the opposite. The figures from the National Sample Survey Organisation's (NSSO) time-use survey in 2019 are pretty damning – in the age group 15 to 59 years, only 67 per cent of rural men, 21 per cent of rural women,71 per cent of urban men and 19 per cent of urban women participated in remunerative work.

The situation had worsened since the lockdown imposed by the end of March 2020. Even after the lifting of the lockdown and some revival of economic activities, the level of employment remains dismal. Widespread unemployment is leading to distress for tens of thousands of families.

The role of the MGNREGS as a lifeline, especially for the rural poor, has been proved from time to time in a country where high malnutrition levels have coexisted with economic growth for years. It was the scheme’s proven record that led the Central government to revise its lockdown guidelines to allow MGNREGS works in April, nearly a month after the lockdown.

The mass exodus of migrant workers from the cities back to their villages during the lockdown also compelled the government to make an extra allocation, raising the budgeted estimates of Rs 61,500 crore to Rs 1.11 lakh crore. Perhaps the Central government now feels the crisis is over and sees the green shoots of economic revival propping up everywhere. Hence the allocation of a mere Rs 73,000 crore for MGNREGS in 2021-22.

But this undermining of the most important government scheme providing a modicum of protection to the country’s rural poor could prove a disaster for distressed areas like Melghat, where private labour contractors could’ve started doing the rounds of the villages and hamlets looking for available working hands.

Typically, the migrations in Melghat begin post-Diwali, soon after the winter harvest operations are over. Men, women and children as young as 10 are gathered up into groups at village streets and squares and packed into trucks and tempos bound for towns and cities across Maharashtra – as far as Mumbai and Pune – where they could provide the cheap labour to fuel India’s economic revival.

A substantial number of migrants would’ve already moved out of the villages between October and March. Only those who would have still held faith in the district administration with their past experience may still be in the villages. The grim news of no work opportunities under MGNREGS would force them out of Melghat too, until the arrival of next rainy season.

The plight of the Korkus is an old one. The monsoon is a tough season to survive for them as it sees the highest child mortality rate with parenting taking a backseat to hard labour in the fields. But then they also need to grow enough grain hoping it will last until the next rains.

The coming year poses a tough choice for the impoverished Korkus of Melghat with their right to work being curbed at the very moment when jobs are difficult to come by in the cities and towns.

With their ‘right to work’ under a severe curb, the rain gods could possibly be their only saviour.

(Anosh Malekar is an author and independent journalist based in Pune.)

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