In Anticipation of What Comes Next: Returning Migrants & MGNREGA

India Migration Now
Jun 18 · 7 min read

by Aditi Premkumar, Meghana Myadam and the IMN Team

In what may come as a huge sigh of relief to migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country, India’s blueprint for Unlock 1.0 promises the gradual opening up of borders and unfettering of interstate movement. This means scores of migrants may be going back home. However, the move seems bleak if they don’t have assured means of livelihoods at their destinations on arrival. In this blog, we explore the increasing significance MGNREGA can have in this situation.

Image Source: The Indian Express

As India entered its fourth stage of lockdown, the Finance Ministry announced a 40,000-crore boost in fund allocation for MGNREGA, catering to the interests of returning migrants. Under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, the government plans to create employment of 300 crore person days, increase daily wages from Rs. 182 to Rs. 202 and additionally sanction work during the monsoon season. With a huge influx of migrants now back home, and more expected, MGNREGA seems like the light at the end of the tunnel for most workers.

What is MGNREGA?

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is the largest work guarantee program in the world and has constitutionally legitimised the fundamental ‘right to work’. It does so by assuring a time-bound guarantee of work and engages rural workforce in constructing agricultural infrastructural assets, therefore striving to embody Gandhian principles of sustainable community development.

An assessment of MGNREGA shows that it has been effective in improving incomes, consumption expenditure, and food security, as well as curbing short-term migration. In Bihar, it has enhanced purchasing power and food security, evident from a rise in spending on consumer durables and repayment of household debts, found a survey conducted by Sinha and Marandi (2011). These shifting patterns of rural consumption can be partly credited to an increased enrolment rate in NREGA schemes.

In Odisha, a study by Parida (2016) found that the scheme played an important role in reducing distress migration in agricultural off seasons by providing job opportunities to the poor, and specifically, the SC and ST households as many of these households are landless and below the poverty line. There was a remarkable drop in households reporting out-migration between 2006–2011 compared to 2000–2005.

A study by Dutta et al in 2012 examined rationing and shortfall of supply in employment and found a high unmet demand across states. The delay in wage payments under the programme has also influenced demand for NREGA jobs and increased the tendency to out-migrate. A study by Himanshu, Mukhopadhyay, A, and Sharan, M. R. (2015) finds that the decline in Rajasthan’s performance in NREGA post 2010 is due to the supply-constrained top-down approach of the state which has diluted the demand-driven nature of the scheme and discouraged workers from seeking work.

In UP, a study by Misra (2019) in Mirzapur (2017–2018) cites lack of awareness of workers’ entitlements, poor administrative capacity, and corruption and collusion of interests of the bureaucratic class as reasons for the lower than national average demand rate (35% against national average of 45%) in UP.

In West Bengal, a study by Das (2015) in the Cooch Behar District from 2010–2011 found that out-migration decisions were influenced by days of employment and earnings under MGNREGA. It found that at least 71% of the migrating households would not have migrated if they had received a greater number of days of employment at source. Hence, the effective implementation of the scheme has the potential to reduce out-migration.

MGNREGA and the Return Migrants

According to the Union Skill Development Ministry, more than 67 lakh migrants have already returned to their homes in 116 districts. Bihar (23.6 lakh) and Uttar Pradesh (17.48 lakh) witnessed the highest numbers of returning migrants, followed by Rajasthan (12.09 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (10.72 lakh), Odisha (2.19 lakh) and Jharkhand (1.1 lakh).

From April 1 to May 20, MGNREGA received 3.5 million new enrolments — more than twice the number of enrolments in the previous year. Recently struck by the disastrous Cyclone Amphan, West Bengal faces the double jeopardy of both the lockdown and a natural calamity on livelihoods. Due to this, MGNREGA jobs have witnessed 9.91 lakh new takers in West Bengal in May alone. Chhattisgarh claims that the number of workers enrolled under the scheme around May 20th was close to 15% of the national average. Jharkhand has innovatively combated the outburst of demand by coordinating with the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) under MGNREGA by channeling the workforce to build roads in Ladakh to provide better accessibility for forward deployments.

Thus, in what seems to be a watershed moment for the Act in these states that generate the highest out migration flows (and consequently return migration), it is imperative to reassess its past performance in preparation for future repercussions.

Hungry & Desperate, Patiala MGNREGA Workers Bang Plates for Food | The Quint

Next steps?

A reformed MGNREGA structure is the need of the hour. Amidst COVID-19, if projects under MGNREGA are not carefully curated in line with social distancing norms, it will pose a public health risk to rural populations and burden already vulnerable health systems in rural India. To mitigate these risks, local authorities must adopt safety mechanisms such as deploying sanitation gear (masks, gloves, etc.) and ensuring adequate supply of sanitation facilities in worksites.

According to Jean Drèze, even amidst COVID-19 with few alternative livelihood options, villagers of Latehar district in Jharkhand have refrained from applying due to a complex application process. This calls for registrations to be carried out directly at the worksites and awareness drives about the same to be enacted at the earliest. Workers must also be compensated with a rise in real wages and days of work. Workers must also be compensated with a rise in both, real wages and days of work.

With a looming cash crunch, inaccessible banking facilities and transaction discrepancies in Aadhaar-based payment system, wages must be paid in cash and systematically recorded to avoid worker agitations, says Reetika Khera. States like Tamil Nadu have successfully implemented a worker-centric use of technology by resisting centralised technocracy.

The ethos of the Act and its success in the past can be attributed to the tangibility of its operations and its primary identity as a people’s movement. A payments system anchored by humans and not entangled in technocratization, open worksites, regular social audits, enhancement of women’s livelihoods, and strong sense of community development brought out the essence of the Act in rural areas, recalls a twitter thread by @roadsscholarz. The present-day MGNREGA has to envision and implement a scheme that takes this into account.

So far, our understanding of ‘distress migration’ has traced movements from rural to urban landscapes. The reabsorption of migration flows in villages implies that workers will now be formalised back into the economy through their enrolment in MGNREGA. If states earnestly learn from their mistakes, there is immense scope to retrieve formal rural markets. This time round, the government should be weary of its false sense of achievement with MGNREGA and invest political will and effort in meeting the demands of migrants who are grappling with their newfound realities.

1/9 Since NREGA 1.0 is in the air, here is a peep at how NREGA used to be in those days, and could still be today (…

8:12 PM — May 29, 2020 Road Scholarz


A webpage dedicated to our work and the work of multiple organisations and collectives in the area of COVID relief and rehabilitation.


In the first part of our policy brief series on the ongoing crisis, we present In the Wake of COVID 19: Return Emigrants to India (Telangana and Andhra Pradesh). Our brief delves into the historical relationship India shares with the Gulf, the particular migration trajectories prevalent in the Deccan region, how this category of emigrants have been impacted, and what the TS and AP governments can implement, based on best practices elsewhere, to effectively re-integrate and re-deploy its emigrant population.

Download In the Wake of COVID 19: Return Emigrants to India

Image Source: IndiaSpendHow Construction Industry Got Away With Not Paying Workers In Lockdown

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All our work in the last few months has been aimed at understanding the needs of migrants and their households, providing and co-ordinating relief, and contributing to the research and policy agenda going forward. We have written about the challenges migrants face, been interviewed by leading media outlets, and pursued advocacy strategies to effect change for migrants everywhere. Do consider supporting our work with migrants and their households by donating through the link below.

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