Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal show that effective implementation of rural employment schemes can build a firewall against COVID-induced joblessness
North 24 Parganas in West Bengal has a proud heritage, being the birthplace of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (Chattopadhyay), famous novelist, writer and creator of India's National Song, Vande Mataram. Today though, North 24 Parganas faces an idiosyncratic problem, the same one that confronts crores of migrant workers across the length and breadth of the country — the growing spectre of a COVID-induced unemployment streak that threatens to wipe out reputations, goodwill and pride earned over many decades and generations of India's backbone, the labour force.
Two lost amongst millions
Case 1: Dablu Sarkar hails from 24 Parganas' Barrackpur sub-division, the same place where Bankim Chandra was born. Having worked as migrant household workers in New Delhi for the last 60 years, Dablu's family has grown to be blindly trusted by their employers in the National Capital. But on March 25, 2020, while on his annual sabbatical at home, Dablu received a rude shock when his employer called and asked him not to return to Delhi for work till further notice. Lockdown 1.0 was just beginning, and Dablu anyway had no means left to return to Delhi, with state borders sealed tight and rail and bus services suspended in the wake of the oncoming pandemic. Two months later, Dablu is still awaiting the call to arms. And if this ordeal weren't enough, his village has recently been ravaged, near-devastated by super-cyclone Aamphan.
Case 2: Shyam Chandra in Assam's Jorhat district faces a similar life-breaking dilemma. Visiting his wife's parents in their village in Assam before returning to his job in an office in Bengaluru, Shyam received a call from his employer, asking him to stay home till he was informed otherwise. The saving grace was that unlike Dablu and his family, Shyam and his ilk were mercifully spared the ferocity of Aamphan. But the mighty Brahmaputra had other plans, and its flooding waters washed away Shyam's crop, home and cattle last week. This left him, his wife, two children and parents not just jobless, but homeless as well.
These are but two instances of COVID-19's relentless scourge on crores of India's migrant workers, from families that have relied for generations on our larger cities to earn their living and support their families in the hinterland. But amid all the gloom and doom, there's some cause for pause and a glimmer of hope for those that the dreaded Coronavirus has destroyed in most ways. Some of India's states and Union territories have shown poise and deft moves to provide employment, either under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) or through direct intervention.
Four states buck the trend
Leading the pack are Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal, whose unemployment rates have fallen from the published December 2019 reported numbers of 4.9 per cent, 6.5 per cent, 11.7 per cent and 6.6 per cent, respectively. This is remarkable, considering that since these figures were published, the Indian economy has all but come to a standstill in this calendar year. Subsequently, the devastating COVID-19 conundrum has rendered millions of migrant workers jobless in cities and forced them to return to their homes and villages. But even as this torrent of workers returns home, jobless, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and West Bengal have managed to provide some means of local livelihoods to a multitude of households.
Admittedly, this walk toward increased employment has so far been small, but it is nonetheless noteworthy. That's because the greatest task confronting the country today, perhaps even greater than COVID-19, is to provide an honourable living and sustenance to India's migrant workers — nearly 40 crore of them. For they suddenly find themselves in no shape to even feed themselves and their families and urgently need to revitalise their lives and regain self-respect. The lack of the latter has seen many Indian states report an unmitigated spike in the number of suicides amongst the migrant class.
What is working?
As per a report in The Wire, the Ministry of Rural Development stated that Andhra Pradesh topped the list, employing 12,70,564 households, followed by Chhattisgarh, which provided jobs to 7,25,886 households despite the lockdown. These two states alone accounted for 57 per cent of the work generated in Indian states in April 2020, as per the said data. Next in line were Bihar and West Bengal, with employment opportunities being extended to 2,58,067 and 2,05,277 households, respectively.
The flipside of these successes is that 19 Indian states did not cross the 10,000-households' number in providing employment. And the decline in work provided through MNREGA is massive when compared to just March 2020 — over 1.57 crore households were provided work in March, compared to 34 lakhs in April, a decline of over 75 per cent in a month. Against this backdrop, the achievement of these aforementioned states is laudable.
Amongst the various work-heads that have been promoted in this crisis are the 'Sadak Nirman Yojana' (infrastructure, houses, roads and bridges); 'Jal Sansadhan' (water management, canals and irrigation); 'Krishi Sansadhan' (farm/livestock management, seeds and fertilisers), and 'Gramin Nirman aur Aawas' (homes in villages [especially in cyclone-hit West Bengal], digging of wells, construction of village schools and toilets). This time of the year also coincides with the harvesting of crops, give or take the 'tiddies' (locusts) swarming over our countryside, and the next few months will create very few opportunities for employment in the farming sector.
Other Indian states need to tighten their belts, shrug off their onset of muscle atrophy and save their energies to focus on areas other than COVID-19 and the lifting of the lockdown. Unless the migrant labour sector is rejuvenated, the Indian economy cannot be, for it rides largely on these strong backs – they are both providers of the most basic and essential of services, and they are consumers. Let me quote just one example. Over 40 crore aspirational Indians make up for a lot of Smartphone purchasers (most of them have it), pay a lot of monthly usage charges and even provide entities like Facebook and WhatsApp with a lot of revenues. They need to be resurrected, only then can all of us be. And let's not forget, they are human beings as well, ones that we have been living in comfort off of, through ways and means both realised and unrealised.
Urban India is maimed too
India's employment index was at an all-time high a decade ago, with increments touching heady levels of up to 25 per cent year on year. Those days are gone. In February this year, national unemployment levels reached a 45-year staggering high of 7.7 per cent. Urban employment levels were even worse, at over 9 per cent. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic — as it manifested itself in the country, its tail wagged India's economic dog furiously and job losses mounted with each passing day of Lockdowns 1.0 through 4.0. The rose is gone; only the thorns remain. Especially in Unlock 1.
It is not just about jobs being lost after years of work experience. It is alarming that only 1 out of 3 entering the job market are finding jobs. Fresh graduates have reported an unemployment rate of nearly 70 per cent. The year 2019 was the worst, with unemployment rates touching 64 per cent. Today, as businesses grimly accept that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, the figure is projected to climb to 80 per cent, and more. Those numbers Scary!
When I had a team…
The entire country is beset with the migration we have witnessed for weeks now, and in ways, we can't comprehend yet. As we vigorously wash our hands repeatedly, don masks and deep-pocket our dandy little sanitiser dispensers, we shamelessly fail to accept or admit even to ourselves that the glory days are gone.
Atul Malik Ram, a communications specialist based in Bhopal, who I asked for ground-level research support, already realises. He made me realise too on Saturday. His answer makes me wonder where we are headed, for it rings true and chills me to the bone. "Through the early stages of the lockdown, when I had a team, there was no work. Now that I am getting work again, I have no team. They waited for two months and then headed home. Let me manage this for you somehow." This then is our today, and our times to come.
Food for thought that. And the realisation of the real devastation that we shall remember COVID-19 for.
The author is a business analyst and communications specialist. Views expressed are personal