Prasun Mandal, a tailor had returned to his home at Gosaba in South 24 Parganas district in May, vowing never to venture out of his village for work again.
It took barely three months for reality to sink in. With no source of income in the village to sustain his family, Mandal was back to his job at a bag manufacturing factory in Bengaluru on Wednesday (September 2).
“What to do? For the last three months I had no income. We have been sustaining on free rations provided by the government,” Mandal said.
There are many migrant workers like Mandal who are returning to cities in different parts of the country to reclaim their old jobs, after failing to get work even under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in their respective villages.
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In West Bengal, as per the state government’s figure, around 10 lakh workers had returned to the state in the wake of the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Of them about 5.70 lakh got work under the flagship rural employment scheme, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said.
Mandal pointed out that for skilled workers there is no job under the MGNREGA.
His observation is in tune with a recent collaborative study which found that 80 per cent of “returned migrants” who got jobs in rural areas were engaged in labour works, confirming absence of skilled employment in villages.
The study was conducted in 11 states including West Bengal, jointly by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), Action for Social Advancement, Grameen Sahara, i-Saksham, Seva Mandir, Transform Rural India Foundation and others.
“In a month I earn ₹16,000 to ₹18,000 here in Bengaluru. I can’t earn even this meagre amount back home,” said Mandal who works with a plastic bag manufacturer in Peenya 2nd Stage, Bengaluru.
Tajuddin of Habibpur in Malda district is another migrant worker who recently left the state to eke a living.
“Working as a mason in New Delhi, I earn ₹800 per day. Whereas for the same job in Malda, one will hardly get ₹350,” he said over the phone from New Delhi, explaining that whatever jobs he could avail in his home state would not fetch him enough to lead a decent life.
Due to this lack of adequate employment opportunities, everyday hundreds of people from the state are again moving out for jobs since the commencement of unlocking process, claim trade union bodies and social organisations with the migrants. There is however no official estimation as yet on the number of people who have out migrated again.
Most of these outgoing workers have been getting calls from their former employers who are even offering to foot their travel fare.
Citizens for Social Justice, a socio-legal organisation that had earlier helped thousands of migrant workers from the state to return home, is now getting several requests from employers to send the workers back.
“Since August, we have helped around 2,300 workers to go back to reclaim their job in various cities,” said CSJ secretary Arindam Das. “The process of outflow is continuing, and it has been increasing.”
“The return of workers to the job sites, however, should not be misconstrued as a sign of economic revival,” warned Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary of the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC).
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“What we are witnessing today is desperation. Workers are desperate to get back to work as they have no earnings at their village home, but the job prospects in the cities are not very bright either. As per the government’s own estimate, 35 per cent of the small and medium enterprises will not be able to resume business. Big industries too are not in a position to resume work with the same staff strength,” she added.
The government should immediately increase the daily wage under MGNREGA from the current ₹202 and also the guaranteed number of job- days from the current hundred to at least 250 days in a year to create better employment opportunities in rural areas, she said.