From MGNREGA work to Sharmik trains: students’ speak during the COVID 19 crisis.

Our postgraduate students and alumni report from the ground during India’s long lockdown in the Covid19 pandemic. 

In our postgraduate classes, we train students to believe that the classroom is one part of a larger experience of understanding the world. Our students spend up to 4 months of their study years in various locations, to understand the practical realities of the country in which we live. With host organisations and interventions, our students learn what it takes to participate in the social sector. 

In March 2020 last year, when India attempted to control the COVID-19 outbreak, the first lockdown caused a layer of distress alongside the pandemic itself. In every way possible, people all over the country had to make do to for work, public health services and rations, with civil society responding to both the health and humanitarian problems that we witnessed. 

Our students have been a part of many such civil society efforts, contributing to reporting and research to the many issues that have been unfolding across the country as part of their research and internships. Whether it is loss of wages, or the gradual waning of traditional occupations, or even emergency response, our students have brought to us exemplary written work about different parts of the country. Here we round up a few key areas. 

As the COVID-19 outbreak began, and the lockdown was imposed on March 24, India saw a season of shrinking work and extensive migration. Our alumnus Rajat Kumar who Kumar works for strengthening local governance institutions in Dungarpur, reported on the experience of Dungarpur, Rajasthan, a largely tribal district where 8 lakh inter and intra-state migrant workers were adversely affected by the lockdown. Kumar reports that nearly 1.3 million migrants returned to Rajasthan having lost jobs all over the country, in March and April.

Kumar reports that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) witnessed a high demand for work. MGNREGS provides 100 days of employment in a financial year available for adult members of rural households, and unemployment allowance if employment is not provided within 15 days of a demand for work. Work resumed in mis-April under MGNREGS and was one of the only ways for rural families to make ends meet.

In a report for India Spend, Kumar documents data on Rajasthan’s demand for MGNREGS work in 2021. In 2020, 14,324,401 households in Rajasthan requested work between April and July, as of data from August 6. This was 22% higher demand than the year 2019 – 20. In Dungarpur district, where 70% of the entire population is from tribal populations (Census 2011), 832,818 people are registered for work. One individual from every household opted for MGNREGS work in 2020, due to job losses during lockdown.

After the lockdown, 100 days of MGNREGS work was distributed between two persons per household, and there was an urgent need for 100 additional days of work for each household as per social activists. Additionally, about 40% of households had completed 50 days of work by the end of the lockdown.

About 1.9 million people, or about 21%, who demanded work under MGNREGS in Rajasthan from April to June did not receive employment, according to data analysed by the activist group People’s Action for Employment Guarantee.” Kumar reports that not only is there a need to improve local planning for implementing and monitoring work done under MGNREGS, there is also a need for community infrastructure work that can help villages meet demand for work.

African Swine Fever, COVID-19 and Floods in Majuli, Assam

Meanwhile, in Majuli, a riverine island in Assam, people faced two other disasters in addition to COVID-19. Deekshit Pai and Nikita Chatterjee, students of the MA in Development progamme and interning with Ayang Trust, reported about this in The Bastion, an independent digital magazine that publishes ideas and reportage on issues of development for India’s youth. With African Swine Fever and the flooding of the Brahmaputra, pig farming which an important part of livelihood had to come to a close, and lockdown related loss of income was made worse by being locked in by the flood. Things were bad in April 2020.

In view of the floods, and restrictions to agricultural markets which caused further losses, ASHA workers, NGOs and Assam’s Pratiroshi Bondhus (community workers) made sure there was a steady stream of relief efforts. With this kind of interdependence and decenralisation, Majuli was able to make it past the lockdown. 

The Ayang Trust in Majuli then began to conduct surveys of Mising tribal villages to address the needs of the people, offering flood relief and maintaining guidelines around the pandemic. They began to use school and college premises to help with flood relief camps and offering COVID screening tests, as well as anganwadi nutritional supplements and health checks for mothers and children. Given the criticality of the scenario, non medical workers had to work with health workers to contain the spread of the virus, especially given other medical emergencies with the water borne diseases of the flood. With specialty hospitals in Jorhat, which could only be accessed by a boat impossible in the flood, the government being short staffed, there was a paucity in disaster management response except for community work. The situation in Majuli emphasised the importance of non-government community led efforts to support people during crises. 

Train journeys and migrant labourers in a country locked down

Migrant labourers in India travel miles and days in search of work in far-off cities. Exodus from villages into cities to sustain livelihoods to work as construction labour or vendors or domestic workers is a common phenomena in a rapidly urbanising India. And the presence of migrants in our midst usually goes unnoticed – something that changed overnight with the lockdown in March. With the sudden announcement of a complete lockdown, India saw the greatest man made tragedy of migrants having lost their jobs with nowhere to stay and no way to get home, except by walking.

It took two months, by May 2020, for the Indian railways to open railway lines. For 45 days, Indian migrant labourers had spent helpless weeks unable to return home or the daunting challenge of walking on foot. On 1 May, the Indian Railways introduced the Sharmik special trains for migrant labourers to return home. Our ex-student Manish Maskara of the Development programme in 2014 tracked the plight of migrant labourers on their train journeys. 

The process of migration has always significantly involved train journeys. Unreserved coaches are full of labourers travelling to cities to find work. Inter-state migrant labour is familiar with the many days ticketless long journeys. But the Sharmik trains came at a time when inter state migrant travel was in crisis. 

During the lockdown, different governments opened their borders at different times, and connectivity and types of trains were a mess. Registration to seek tickets home were made harder, and with no free train fares and no accommodation by the government to make transport accessible, the Sharmik trains introduced dynamic pricing. Central and state governments were at loggerheads, and with intermediaries becoming necessary to procure tickets, workers often lost all their savings. There were stories of ticket collectors collecting money from migrant labourers to meet their daily ticket targets, and the railway policies who abused their law powers to ensure discipline”.

One the biggest horrors of the Sharmik trains was the death of labourers on their way home, travelling days with no food or water, which the trains did not provision.