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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 24, New Delhi, May 30, 2020

Pandemic and Employment Guarantee: A Review

Saturday 30 May 2020


by Debatra K. Dey (Dept. of Economics, Srikrishna College, Bagula, W.B)

It was probably the first time in India under the regime of liberal economy that the gap between India and Bharat became prominent when the Report of the National Commission For Enterprise in the Unorganised Sector in 2007 mentioned that ‘It concentrates on a detailed analysis of the conditions of work and lives of the unorganised workers consisting of about 92 per cent of the total workforce of about 457 million (as of 2004-05). For most of them, conditions of work are utterly deplorable and livelihood options extremely few. Such a sordid picture coexists uneasily with a shining India that has successfully confronted the challenge of globalisation powered by increasing economic competition both within the country and across the world’. Though it was an eye opener regarding the increasing inequalities and disjuncture in Indian economy in a high growth period yet the situation became worse as India’s rank in terms of Global Hunger Index drops down from 92 in 2006 to 102 in 2019 out of 119 countries.

The new liberal order also faces an unforeseen disease in the form of epidemic already plagued by rising nationalism and economic power of Non- Western countries. This is a moment of war meeting three crises; ecological crisis, crisis of global capitalism and the biological crisis as evident in current situation. The combined effects of the above-mentioned crises will be devastating and tell us in stark terms of the inability of the present global regime to secure lives (Samaddar,2020).

 International Labour Organization (ILO) in the first week of April 2020 alerts that ‘In India, with a share of almost 90 per cent of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crises. In case of informal economy the same report suggests some targeted measures including cash transfer, providing alternative employment supplemented by efforts to ensure adequate supply of food and other essentials. This can work promptly with the help of local and community level initiatives to cater specific needs.

The return of millions of migratory workers hitherto invisible after the sudden lockdown has aggravated the crisis in a new scale. In this context noted historian Ramchandra Guha tells this as the greatest manmade tragedy in India since partition. Migration theories generally based on life time migration, suffer from methodological limitations and are inappropriate for analyzing the contemporary migration. It has been pointed out that invisibility of women’s economic migration is an inherent lacuna in the data collecting process coupled with its inability in estimating effects of various socio-economic factors (Dutta and Shaw, 2015). In addition, NSSO and census reports fail to capture short term seasonal movements which contribute largely to in the migration process. There remains an inadequacy in data incorporating of children and women who would accompany the head of households to the destination (Dandekar and Ghai, 2020).

Ghatak (2020) opines that the migrant workers from rural areas play pivotal roles in the economic growth in India as capital alone cannot survive without labour. These migrant labourers are the fuel behind this growth engine as without this fuel the engine will sputter and stop because of upward pressure on wages in the limited pool of local labour markets.

The sudden lockdown on 24th March, 2020 has its immediate detrimental impacts on economy in general and the livelihoods of poor in particular. The shortage of labour in the time of Rabi harvesting due to return of migrant labour aggravated the situation when the acres of Rabi crop had increased by 9.5% compared to Kharif by the end of January 2020. Against this situation of widespread starvation Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) currently covering 13.5 crore households could act as an employer of the last resort. In order to address massive rural unemployment several measures are needed to leverage full potential of MGNREGA. To quote:

These include removing restrictions on the types of works allowed under the scheme by widening its scope and coverage, providing work to those without job cards to absorb returning migrant workers, lifting the ceiling of 100 days of work per household, clearing pending dues, increasing the budget outlay and paying the recommended national minimum wage of `375 to workers. A more inclusive and expanded implementation of social safety nets and public employment programmes can thus help stabilise the livelihoods of the rural poor in these uncertain times. (Editorial, Economic and Political Weekly, 2020).

It is argued that the problem of unemployment in rural areas can be addressed in three ways. First, a move to develop an active community level awareness and campaign to replace mechanization in agriculture by more labour-intensive cultivation if possible. Second, for local production of items of local requirement, the local weavers, artisan and craftsman may establish micro enterprises and form local community campaign for buying local products and thirdly, local initiatives for building community infrastructure, like water harvesting, canal irrigation network may generate employment opportunities (Bhattacharya, 2020).

Kumar (2020) apprehends that due to recent migrant crisis much more pressure will be on commons. There will be greater demand for work as more people are back in villages hence, agriculture activities may be extended to government and forest lands and new investment in irrigation may occur to intensify existing agricultural land.

However P.Sainath alerts us that livelihoods of millions engaged in agriculture in rural India has already been collapsed along with every livelihood in the countryside that has been savaged as well. So availability of employment for the migrants who returned to village is more problematic.

In the pretext of return of migrant workers in rural areas drawing on their experience in field Mit and Mahapatra (2020) suggest several recommendations to reduce rural distress through MGNREGA including giving priorities to the schemes can be taken by individuals or small groups of 4-6 workers required for repairing and strengthening bunds on land used for paddy cultivation, promoting poultry and goat rearing, reduction of daily work load, increase in wage, and days of guaranteed employment. This will, in a way, also be able to tackle the upcoming food crisis which is being apprehended at this current situation.

It has been reported by Tewari (2020) in the last week of April 2020 that amidst the country wide lockdown farmers and wage earners belonging to denotified tribes in Purulia district of West Bengal are struggling for sustenance. The report also indicates that joblessness resulting in indebtness has pushed them to the level of bonded labour in post lockdown period.

It is high time to effectively address this issue of rural employment in post lock down condition to sustain rural livelihoods to save the lives of million Indians. Alternatively, this might be an opportunity to revive rural economy with the help of extra human labour by not only creating eco friendly assets to strengthen rural infrastructure but also to promote rural social capital to fight against the pandemic of capitalism. It would lend positive impacts on the overall GDP of Indian economy and reduce the alarming increase of unemployment to some extent.


International Labour Organisation (2020): ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work. Second edition, 7th April, 2020

Samaddar, Ranabir (2020): Introduction: Borders of an Epidemic in Boarders of An Epidemic: COVID-19 and the Migrant Workers (ed), pp: 1-23

Dutta,Ttina & Shaw, Annapurna (2015): Lifetime Vs Current Migration: A Methodological Review, Demography India (2015), Vol.44, Issue: 1&2, pp: 69-82

Editorial, Economic and Political Weekly (2020): Ameliorating Rural Distress, Vol.55, Issue No. 19, May 09, 2020

Bhattyacharya, Sutanu (2020): Rural economy, not the corporate sector, holds the key to economic revival, National Herald, 12 May 2020

Mit Rajesh and Mahapatra Saroj (2020): NREGA in the times of COVID-19,

Kumar, Anish (2020): The future of rural India post-COVID-19,

Ghatak, Maitreesh (2020): The indispensability of labour in reviving India’s economic engine, The Hindustan times, 8 May, 2020

Tiwary, Sadhika (2020): Covid-19: Indebtness, Hunger May push West Bengal’s Denotified Tribes Into Bonded Labour, India Spent, April 24, 2020

Dandekar, Ajay and Rahul Ghai (2020): Migration and Reverse Migration in the Age of COVID-19, Economic and Political Weekly, HYPERLINK « » Vol. 55, Issue No. 19, 09 May, 2020

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