Activation of MGNREGA During COVID-19 Lockdown
Located in the Bagli block of Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh, Jhiri village too was bearing the brunt of the nation-wide lockdown after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the village is primarily dependent on agriculture, the restrictions on commodity trade and movement had dealt a mortal blow to many of the seasonal livelihood options for the people. With the migrant workers returning, many households not only had extra members to feed but also faced diminishing income sources. To help people secure a basic income at this time of distress, SPS attempted working with the elected Gram Panchayats to initiate labour intensive land development and soil conservation work across several villages so that people could earn additional income. Despite the initial distrust among the community about MGNREGA, the transformative power of MGNREGA was clearly visible once the work started rolling. The story of Kamla Bai of Jhiri stands testimony to it.
Village Jhiri falls in the Ambapani Panchayat of Bagli block in Madhya Pradesh. SPS has been making concerted efforts to activate the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the twin villages of this Panchayat- Jhiri and Ambapani. Kamla Bai from Jhiri is a small farmer, part of the SPS Sustainable Agriculture Programme for many years.
Her husband, Manphool passed away when her eldest son Prem Singh was only 23 years old. At a tender age, Prem was left behind by his father to fend for his mother and his six brothers and sisters. The family owns a land of 4 bighas of which 1.5 bighas of land have been barren, unproductive, and completely covered with rocks. Prem cannot recall a time when any farming activity happened in all 4 bighas of their land, nor can Kamla Bai. They could not afford to clear the patch of land because of the lack of money that is required to pay the labourers. Kamla Bai’s two sons- Prem Singh and Jamal Singh work on the farm while her youngest son, Sohan Singh works at a factory in Indore. He lost his job during the lockdown and had to return to his village. He was quarantined at home.
In April, SPS in its efforts to activate MGNREGA in this village, proposed farm bunding work on their land. This would generate employment during the lockdown, clear 1.5 bighas of agricultural land, and increase their area of farming. Prem Singh was initially reluctant to work in MGNREGA. He did not want to work in other farmers’ lands and was also not satisfied with the wage rate. However, an opportunity to work on his own land and make it cultivable made him change his mind. After many visits to the Block Panchayat and its CEO, SPS team secured the technical sanction for field bunding and generated muster sheets for this work. Prem Singh and his brother Jamal Singh along with other labourers started working in the field under MGNREGA. Within a span of 25 days, 970 running metres of farm bunding was completed in Ambapani during the lockdown, generating 485 person days of labour and
wage payment to workers worth Rs. 92,150. On Kamlabai’s field, the 132 running metres of farm bunds were constructed using the rocks from the site itself, gradually clearing her farm and making it suitable for cultivation.
Kamla Bai has sown maize for the first time and lal tuar in this Kharif season and is expecting an increase of 80-100 kg of in the production of lal tuar due to the increase in the area of cultivation. For the following Rabi season, they are expecting an increase of 7 quintals in their production of wheat and an increase of 1.5-2 quintals in their production of jowar. MGNREGA has proven to be an efficient tool during times of distress, both in terms of cash in-flows and for creating durable physical assets. This is an example where MGNREGA could be used for converting hitherto uncultivated land into cropland. There are several such pieces of land in the tribal-dominated villages of Bagli block, where MGNREGA could be used to convert barren land into agricultural land and raise the level of farm incomes.