Activists and rights groups are urging the Telangana government to take necessary measures to protect the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) workers in the state amid the second wave of COVID-19.
Activists say that the NREGA workers are left with no choice but to work despite the risky scenario on the ground. Telangana has over 77,727 active COVID-19 cases, with 7,646 new cases reported in the last 24 hours of which Hyderabad (including Medchal Malkajgiri) has 2,072 and Warangal Urban has 152 cases while as many as 5,422 are from districts with high number of rural patients.
A glance at the latest Telangana health bulletin suggests that over 60% of COVID-19 patients are from rural areas where most NREGA workers reside.
As per data collated by LibTech India, a collective of socially concerned professionals working for transparency in rural public services delivery, the state has 62.1 lakh active NREGA workers comprising 4.5% of Telanganaâ€™s population.
Speaking to TNM, Palle Ajay Swaero, a Project Manager with LibTech, said that NREGA labourers should be recognised as â€śfrontline workersâ€ť as they are involved in works related to water conservation, plantation drives, drought proofing and land development.
He said, â€śAll NREGA mandal and village level functionaries should be declared as frontline workers and be vaccinated on priority. Till that time, all works should be suspended and payment of wages should be ensured for the workers for that period.â€ť
Ajay added, â€śWorkers should also be given compensation in places wherever works have been cancelled in the wake of COVID-19 surge.â€ť
Korivi Swamy, 36, a NREGA worker from Somaram of Tadwai in Kamareddy district, which has highest number of NREGA workers, agreed that it would be greatly helpful if they are given a monthâ€™s wages in advance given the grim situation due to the pandemic. He said, â€śCases are increasing in villages also, itâ€™s impossible to know who is infected and who is not, so itâ€™s better we are given advance wages for a month at least. We can work for that amount once the situation becomes safe enough to carry out works.â€ť
Swamy further added, â€śCompensation for each job card holding family can also be a good way to support families who are suffering due to the pandemic.â€ť
A report released by LibTech has also suggested that the number of working days for each household should be increased from the existing 100 as there is a huge demand for works under NREGA amid the pandemic, given the reverse migration from cities to villages.
With state governments placing restrictions after cases shot up in the second wave, migrant workers too are moving back home while some have already moved back to their native places.
Speaking to TNM, Shankar Peddalingannagari, Secretary of the Dalit Bahujan Front (DBF), said the government should consider paying wages in advance beside clearing the existing wages as most of the NREGA workers are from landless and socially weaker communities. The Union government has released Rs 4,163.6 crore to NREGA workers in Telangana for 2020-21.
While activists seek advance wages for workers, it is to be noted that as much as Rs 3.4 crore wages were rejected due to technical reasons last year while Rs 33 crore is pending in wages.
Shankar said, â€śFirst, they should pay wages in advance for assured working days for at least a month as the risk of COVID-19 infection is higher for these workers as the works involve breach of physical distancing.â€ť
He further said, â€śOr the government should figure out alternative work to be assigned under NREGA, which can prevent the risk besides accommodating the reverse migration labourers by issuing job cards without delay.â€ť
While the government has already issued COVID-19 guidelines to be implemented, NREGA workers however say that they are under risk of infection despite taking all precautions.
Anil Gorre, a social worker who works closely with different rural communities, said that considering that most NREGA workers are from economically weaker sections, the government should provide special nutrition packages under the public ration supply to help boost immunity.
Anil said, â€śProviding nutritious supplements and paying wages in advance to NREGA workers will go a long way towards preventing the spread of the virus. It will directly reduce the burden on the public healthcare sector.â€ť