With the surge of COVID-19 in cities across India, millions of migrant workers returned to their villages in rural areas. They feared a repeat of the 2020 crisis when they lost their jobs and livelihoods during the strict lockdown. Around 20 per cent of migrant workers who returned in 2020, stayed in their villages. This added to the employment crisis in rural areas.
In this crisis the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has proven to be a vital source of livelihood for rural communities. In most cases it is the only work available for rural workers.
NREGA provides 100 days of paid employment on public works for unemployed rural workers. This work includes building public wells, irrigation ditches, and working on their own land. This in turn supports access to potable water and food security in rural communities.
The IUF-affiliated Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union (GALU) assisted more than 20,000 members and returned migrant workers in six tribal districts to gain paid work under NREGA. Rural workers in tribal districts are the most vulnerable, with a high rate of out-migration due to poverty. After returning to their villages the paid work under NREGA is crucial to their livelihoods.
GALU ensures that NREGA pays for marginal farmers to farm their own land for food crops and rural communities have access to food grains under National Food Security Act. While promoting mask wearing, distancing and washing hands at NREGA worksites, GALU also arranged for COVID-19 testing with local authorities.
GALU is now focused on promoting vaccine awareness and access to vaccines. GALU is organizing vaccination drives in rural communities through its awareness campaign and arranging free & safe transportation to vaccination centres for women workers. Initially this transportation will be arranged for 2,000 women.
In the COVID-19 era NREGA will continue to play a vital role in rural workers’ access to the right to food and nutrition and the protection of livelihoods. GALU along with other IUF-affiliated unions such as SEWA are demanding that NREGA coverage is extended to 200 days of paid work.