It was just 8 am and the heat in Telangana's Kamareddy district hinted that a day with soaring temperature lay ahead. Around 25 men and women were seen busy digging one to two feet deep holes around plants along both sides of the Hyderabad-Banswada road near Gandhari, a mandal headquarters. All of them were Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Unlike others, these workers do not have the option of practicing physical distancing, as suggested by the government in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are 1,16,49,884 (1.16 crore) wage seekers under MGNREGA in the state of Telangana, and most of them were showing up to work until India announced the lockdown. The government stopped work after March 20 and resumed after April 20, after some relaxations came into place. MGNREGA work has resumed in several of Telanganaâ€™s districts with an advisory of maintaining physical distance while digging for water tanks, tree plantations, farm ponds etc.
However, this advisory is apparently not being followed. At the Kamareddy work site for instance, Balayya, a worker, said, "We were divided into pairs. Each pair will work at a tree." When asked if maintaining physical distance was possible, Balayya replies, "It's not really possible, but we need some work to survive right?"
The workers also complain that neither hand sanitisers nor gloves were given to them for their work.
No physical distancing, water or shade
One such village where the work has resumed in Kamareddy district is Naglur. Located amid hillocks, it has a population of less than 1,200. The young and the old -- aged from 20 to 60 year olds -- are flocking to work with crow bars and baskets. Many of them are working on one side of the village for digging 'mini ponds' (four metre in length, one metre in width with a depth of 0.4 metres) that can help to develop ground water. Their labour fetches them a little over Rs 200.
Here too, there is no physical distancing. And according to Prashanth, a worker at the site in Naglur, there is also no provision for drinking water or first aid kits at the work sites. Even when TNM went to the spot, there was no drinking water facility, medical kit or tent for shade.
Prashanth was previously an auto driver. With the lockdown preventing him from running his auto, he had to turn to MGNREGA work. "What else can we do? Doing this work and feeding ourselves with whatever is available is our only choice."
The workers are mostly small scale farmers or coolies mostly belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) or Backward Classes (BC). Many travel long distances to come to the worksite. Dodde Gangavva, in her late 50s, told TNM, "By the time I reach here after walking for 3 km, I'm tired. Government should give us transport fare."
Rama Goud, who was a toddy seller before the lockdown says that drinking water facilities and tents for shade should be given for resting as the temperature is rising and labourers have to work under the scorching sun.
Gorre Gangaram, while taking a quick break to gulp water, said, "Trying to maintain physical distance in our line of work can lead to injuries as we have to work with heavy stones, crowbars, soil etc. We have to do it together. For now, we are covering our face with handkerchiefs."
Non-payment of wages
Several MGNREGA workers in different villages have also alleged that there is delay in the payment of their wages.
Two workers that TNM spoke to - Lakshmi and her husband Sairam - said that authorities have not paid the wages for the last two weeks of work.
Another worker, Gorre Bhumaiah, hopes that the government will release his wages of the last two weeks soon. He adds, "Most of us anyway have to suffer, with or without COVID-19."
Officials deny breach in safety guidelines, non-payment
However, Raghunandan Rao, Commissioner Panchayat Raj and Rural Development speaking to TNM, said that from April 1, around Rs 250 crore worth of wages were disbursed across the state. He said, "99% of wages have disbursed. There is no weight in the allegations."
When asked about breach of physical distancing protocols at the work sites, he said that the guidelines were being followed.
Meanwhile, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in Supreme Court by activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan arguing it is not possible to ensure physical distancing in the nature of the works performed. They pleaded that the government of India should consider all active and registered job card holders under the MGNREGA Act as deemed to be at work even if they are absent from work and accordingly make full payment of their wages at the earliest.
Activists on the ground said that it is dangerous to keep the vulnerable daily wage earners at risk of disease at the time of crisis by forcing them to work. Dr Sagari Ramdas, scholar and activist from Food Sovereignty Alliance (FSA) said, "The threat of the disease is still there. When the government advises physical distancing at a larger level and ignores the same when it comes to poor daily wagers of MGNREGA, it shows their double standards."
She added, "Pay their wages in advance or consider them as deemed to have worked for the period of lockdown or as long as the threat is there. What are the protection gears they are providing to make such exceptions to continue works in the risk? It's unfair to create a situation for workers to choose between death by hunger and potential death due to the pandemic."