World’s biggest jobs programme on the brink due to COVID-19 pandemic


Under a scheme that is considered the world’s largest jobs programme, millions of Indians have secured work after the country suffered massive job losses in a struggling economy and a raging pandemic.

But the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – worth billions of dollars – still falls far short of what is needed in a country with an estimated 100 million migrant workers.

Experts said the fund – which has already been topped up – is once more close to spent.

“This meets the demand up to September. But it is not enough. States should be asked to redraw labour budgets and be assured that adequate funding will be provided,” said Ravi Srivastava, director of the Centre for Employment Studies at research organisation Institute for Human Development.

The scheme is the only option for the millions of migrant workers who are suddenly out of jobs.

“This scheme is our only hope for work in our village. I got 15 days of work under the job scheme in May but nothing after that,” Rathod, 45, from Uttar Pradesh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Rathod is among the 82 million of the 98 million people who applied for jobs and have secured work, a record that tops the number of new jobs created under the programme each year in India.

The rural development ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but officials of five states that recorded among the highest number of applicants said they had provided work to almost every job seeker.

The scheme was created to provide steady wages and jobs for people, who were in turn creating assets for their villages, be it conserving water or improving roads.

It was never envisioned as a bandage in a global pandemic.

Vallabhacharya Pandey, a social activist who works with migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh, said the scheme had worked well in the initial weeks of the pandemic, when the only people seeking work were locals. “But the return of migrant workers has overburdened the programme,” he said.

India’s estimated 100 million migrant workers were among the worst hit by India’s strict lockdown, which triggered a mass exodus from city jobs at garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.

Migrant labourers took to the roads en masse and walked back to the countless villages that dot the map and offer few opportunities to earn.

After months back home, they said some employers were now sending buses or buying air tickets to get workers back, but many were still sat idle in their rural outposts awaiting any word on work.

India’s economy shrank by almost 24% on year in the second quarter, the worst of all major economies, even as the number of Indians with the virus topped 4.2 million, exceeded only by the US tally of 6.2 million.

Launched more than 15 years ago to offer a secure livelihood to rural India, the scheme guarantees applicants at least 100 days of work for average daily wages of 200 rupees.

It has been credited with saving families from poverty, and empowering women and the socially-marginalised.

Officials overseeing the programme in five states contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were creating jobs that could absorb more workers despite a backdrop of strikes, floods and tight budgets.

Jobs include planting trees, building roads and cleaning canals – useful yet rarely tasks that tap into an applicant’s trade. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)