Continuing work during the lockdown, timely wage payments, and willingness of workers were credited for Chhattisgarh achieving 37% of the yearly target within two months under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the highest for any State in the period, Panchayat and Rural Development Minister T.S. Singh Deo said on Saturday.

The Union Rural Development Ministry had set for the State a target to create 288.14 lakh projected persondays in April and May, under the MGNREGA, of which it has generated 503.37 lakh persondays, 175% more than the target. As a result, it has been able to cover 37% of the financial year’s target of creating 1,350 lakh persondays.

“The scheme has helped pump money into the rural economy during the lockdown,” Mr. Deo told The Hindu. “Agricultural activity will be least affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as there is no issue of plants shutting or unavailability of labour. And the MGNREGA component will put money straight in the hands of households.”

Mr. Deo pointed out that as urban business centres closed during the lockdown, more number of people returned to villages, needing some kind of work. “So, we were able to be there for them when they needed us.”

Second to Maharashtra

So far, the State has provided 100 days of employment to 1,996 families, the most only after Maharashtra. As Chhattisgarh has allowed more than one member of a family to work on a job card, Bijapur district as of Saturday had 113% workers employed against active job cards.

“Even while the pandemic was picking up, we allowed the work to continue with the rider of physical distancing. And this paid off as other job alternatives were not available,” Mr. Deo said. Until now, employment of 23 days per family on an average had been provided in the State, against a national average of 16 days.

The scheme’s biggest drawback, he said, is delayed payments which pushes workers away. “We made sure money reaches them as soon as possible.”

As much as 98% funds transfer orders were released with dual signature within eight days of the muster roll closure. In Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur and Narayanpur, remote districts hit by Maoism, payments are being made in cash. Mr. Deo further said workers took MGNREGA opportunities along with collecting minor forest produce like tendu leaves and mahua during yearly collection drives.

Work during monsoon

To help workers during the monsoon, when MGNREGA works invariably take a hit, the Chhattisgarh government has planned to create employment opportunities through interdepartmental convergence. “Earthen work opportunities will be lesser in the monsoon. We can give them some skill upgradation opportunities. We are considering if workers can be tagged with say horticulture, vegetable growing, sericulture, poultry and dairy sectors.”

During the monsoon, workers either sow their own fields or those of others before seeking work elsewhere. “We are looking at what can be done at home. Their numbers will be far lesser than the employment potential reached today,” Mr. Deo said.

As regards absorption of skilled migrant workers who returned to the State within the MGNREGA, the minister said, “Most are still in quarantine. We will get a better picture in a couple of weeks. We are taking down their details, noting down their skills to link them with available opportunities. But there may not be too many opportunities for them in the rural sector.”

In order to scale up the scheme and generate incomes for workers, the Chhattisgarh government has requested the Centre to provide another 100 persondays per family at least during the pandemic. “The scheme’s budget has been increased by ₹40,000 crore to accommodate a ₹20 increase in wage and more persondays if required,” Mr. Deo said.

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