MGNREGA extends the idea beyond famine conditions to relieve chronic rural underemployment by providing for 100 days of work for someone in a rural family.
The Coronavirus will be defeated sooner or later, but a crisis of this proportion should never be wasted. We can learn a lot of lessons from the experience of the last three months. Reforms are best built from learned experience in the face of an emergency. Structural weaknesses of the economy and society are exposed at such a time. This emergency was caused by totally unpredictable forces. No one — no party, no leader, no community, no other country — can be blamed for its occurrence.
This is an ideal opportunity for thinking outside the box.
One of the most zealously protected and effective welfare provisions in India is MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). It began as an emergency response in Maharashtra during a famine in the 1960s. The British established famine relief back in the 1860s in the Famine Code. Then, the issue was that foodgrains could be provided from outside the famine area but people had no money to buy the food. So, in famine, a work scheme was created to employ and pay people.
MGNREGA extends the idea beyond famine conditions to relieve chronic rural underemployment by providing for 100 days of work for someone in a rural family. It has become a pillar of the welfare structure.
The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses but the most noticeable is the plight of working people in the informal sector in urban areas, particularly metros, who are normally employed but with precarious livelihoods. This has become most visible among migrant workers. They are a regular feature of the Indian economy across all regions. You see it when there is a problem. Thus, Bihari workers were victimised in Gujarat a couple of years ago and had to leave the town.
At such moments, we realise that these people have moved long distances for a job in which they have neither security of employment nor proper housing. Losing a job, even temporarily, means starvation. In the present situation, the loss is temporary but there is no knowing how soon the lockdown would end and the old job or a new one become available. What is striking is that there are a large number of people in this situation trapped in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru. If MGNREGA made us aware of the urgency of tackling rural underemployment, the COVID-19 crisis should wake us up to a large urban population which also needs help.
The migrant workers, (some with families living on pavements) want to rush back. Where they are heading may be home but there are no jobs there. In future crises, the best option may not be to rush back to the village, but to wait for the next job.
What is needed is a scheme which will help tide over the transition between jobs. The person/ household, rendered destitute, needs a short-term unemployment benefit which will tide them over till the principal earner gets a job again.
On the analogy of MGNREGA, an income payment for 100 days for unemployed urban workers is worth introducing. They could be put to work on schemes for cleaning up, waste collection or any other task which is urgent.
It is not much, but more than they have now.