The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan (GKRA), a scheme to boost livelihood and employment opportunities for migrant workers who have returned to villages from metro cities due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The scheme for migrant workers’ welfare, however, leaves inter-district migrants completely out of its purview, focusing only on 116 districts across six states which see high inter-state migration.
GKRA is a programme to provide livelihood opportunities to returning migrant workers by employing them under 25 government schemes. The works include laying of gas pipelines, water supply, internet set up, building housing for the rural poor, waste management infrastructure, rural roads and work on Anganwadis, among others, under 12 different Union ministries.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the districts chosen for the scheme are those where more than 25,000 migrant workers have returned in the last few months. These districts are estimated to cover about 66 per cent of such migrant workers.
The lack of a plan to provide employment to returning inter-district migrants – especially skilled workers – is most apparent in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region where more than a million migrants have returned from Pune, Mumbai and other major cities in the state after the lockdown. In most of the eight districts, the administration is counting on the returning migrants to go back to the cities after the pandemic subsides. “Some are already returning,” said an administration official, with a whiff of relief.
Each of the eight districts of Marathwada – a region known for low socio-economic development and migration of rural population – has seen a much higher number of returning migrants than the 25,000 eligibility mark for GKRA since March 2020, when the pandemic started affecting life and livelihoods in Mumbai, Pune and other big cities in comparatively wealthier western Maharashtra.
Numbers obtained by The Indian Express from district authorities show that about 10.8 lakh migrants have returned to the eight districts in the region with each seeing anywhere between 60,000 to 2.5 lakh returnees from cities in the last three months. The highest count of 2.5 lakh is in Beed district, which sees very high seasonal migration of sugarcane harvest labourers to various sugar factories in western Maharashtra, in addition to other skilled and semi-skilled migrants who move to cities such as Mumbai and Pune in search of better wages.
Other districts in the region — Aurangabad (about 2 lakh), Latur (1.43 lakh), Nanded (1.5 lakh), Osmanabad (1.1 lakh) Parbhani (1 lakh), Hingoli (65,000) and Jalna (60,000) — have also received migrants in numbers that are many times higher than the 25,000 threshold fixed by the central government for inclusion in GKRA scheme for inter-state migrants in six states.
Most districts counting on return of migrants, work under MGNREGA
While those looking for manual work back home can, possibly, be accommodated via MGNERGA works, for skilled workers there is very little to do in these districts. In most districts, the only possible solution is going back to the big cities, again, to look for work.
“In the last few months, we have issued thousands of fresh job cards under MGNERGA, of which about 2,000 would be returned migrants. For skilled workers who were working in industrial units in the city, we have very little capacity to accommodate them as there are almost no industries here. We are in talks with a few units, which had earlier employed north Indian workers who have now left, to employ the locals who have returned,” said Hingoli Collector Ruchesh Jaywanshi.
When asked about the district administration’s plan for the migrants, Collector of neighbouring Parbhani, Deepak Mugalikar, said the migrants have returned to their native places, but only temporarily. “They will be going back. In fact, some have already started,” said Muglikar.
“The first priority for us in connection with the returning migrants is to ensure that they do not spread coronavirus. We are keeping them in 14-day institutional quarantine followed by another 14 days of home quarantine. If they seek jobs under MGNREGA, we have ample work…,” he said.
But the Rs 202 per day wage under MGNREGA is nowhere enough for a skilled worker like Pramod Harkal (24), who used to earn over Rs 600 a day as a helper in an automobile assembly unit in Alandi, Pune.
Harkal, who hails from Gunj Khurd village in Parbhani district, said he returned to his village two months ago and has been unemployed since. “I can’t get any suitable work in the village. I tried to find some in Pathri (the tehsil headquarters) but to no avail. I am now looking to go back to Pune once transport opens,” said Harkal.
Pankaj Gajmal, a 30-year-old from Pathri town in the same district, had returned in April from Mumbai, where he worked as a support staff in a data centre of a nationalised bank via a third-party contract. “Although my office was open, I couldn’t go as the local train service had sopped in Mumbai. I returned home in April. I tried to find some work online but there isn’t any,” said Gajmal, who plans to return to his earlier job in Mumbai, or get a new one in the city, as soon as the local train service resumes.
Experts believe that schemes like GKRA may help migrants survive the pandemic period by providing them minimum income. But GKRA, like MGNREGA, can’t keep the population of migrant workers back home, who leave their homes looking for better wages.
“A scheme like GKRA will temporarily discontinue the inter-district migration during the ongoing pandemic. Most of the migrants – especially in districts such as Beed – migrate to western Maharashtra looking for better wages and advance amounts from muqadams (contractor) to undertake major expenditure, such as on marriages or tackling an emergency. The government schemes have limitations to provide these benefits and… these schemes may not help them stay back in the native districts,” said Nishikant Warbhuvan, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences, Swami Ramandand Teerth Marathwada University (SRTMU), sub-centre, Latur.
(This story was published in The Indian Express on June 23 2020)