How Nitish Kumar’s plans to create jobs before Bihar polls failed

A man records a large screen playing an address by chief minister Nitish Kumar during a virtual rally ahead of Bihar polls, in Patna, on 7 September. In May, Kumar had promised to provide employment to every single migrant returning to Bihar, assuring them that they would not need to migrate out of the state again. The ground realities belie the colossal failure of his promise. Parwaz Khan / Hindustan Times
01 November, 2020

Since early July, a crossroad that used to be called Kanta Chowk, in the flood-hit town of Sitamarhi in northern Bihar, has been busy. Each day, about twenty-five busses packed with Bihari workers leaves the curb, heading to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Punjab, any place that promises employment. This gave the crossroad its new name, Dilli Modh. More than one thousand migrants have left from Dilli Modh every day for the past four months, after the COVID-19 lockdown, floods and government incompetence left Biharis with few avenues for employment in the state. In May, Nitish Kumar, the state’s chief minister and supremo of the Janata Dal (United), had promised to provide employment to every single migrant returning to Bihar, assuring them that they would not need to migrate out of the state again. The ground realities belie the colossal failure of his promise.

The first phase of polling in Bihar’s assembly election occurred on 28 October, with the state’s widespread unemployment being the most widely discussed issue. Over 32.6 lakh migrant workers returned to the state after the central government had announced a hurried lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. To fulfil his promise, Kumar’s plans, which he described in various interactions with the media, included strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, announcing new jobs under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan, an employment generation scheme targeting returning migrants, starting skill-training programmes in the state and setting up new small-scale production units to employ skilled and semi-skilled migrants who returned to the state.

Nearly every one of these plans have been unsuccessful.  A vast majority of workers have not gotten the work they are entitled to under MGNREGA, partly due to widespread corruption in the system. Meanwhile, the GKRA has barely reached 50 percent of its targeted spending and it is unclear how many jobs it has created. In my reporting I found that skill-training programmes as well as small scale units exist more on paper than in reality and have not produced any credible results. Many in the state have also been affected by disastrous flooding in July and August, which destroyed agricultural fields, homes and the meagre savings that they had. All of this has meant that many workers have left and continue to leave the state to search for employment. Many have left before they could vote in the Bihar polls. “Even this remigration has come with a cost for many who took debts from moneylenders to start afresh on returning to big cities,” Siddharth Kumar, a workers’ rights activist based in West Champaran district, told me. “Another cost for many was to be their dignity. After the humiliation and ill-treatment they suffered during the lockdown, most of them who did not intend to return to big cities were compelled to do so. How long could one survive even at home with no source of livelihood?”

In July, a survey conducted by the Alliance for Dalit Rights—an umbrella group of Dalit organisations—found that even at the start of the pandemic, the economic situation of rural Bihari households, particularly those from marginalised communities, was dire. Their survey covered 1,400 Dalit and Adivasi households in 112 villages from 14 districts. Twenty-seven percent of surveyed households did not have any money with them when the lockdown was announced, while 36 percent had only a few hundred rupees left with them. The survey found that only five percent of households had sufficient savings to survive an emergency situation such as the lockdown. Eighty-five percent of families survived on daily wages alone, while a majority of the rest depended on remittances from migrant workers. The pandemic ended all income from both sources, leaving the poor of Bihar without a stable income, food, or any means to survive without government aid.

The single largest source of employment in rural Bihar is under the MGNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every rural household. Following the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, all MGNREGA work was unofficially halted. However, as more than 32.6 lakh migrant workers returned to cash-strapped villages in the state, work under MGNREGA was restarted on 27 May, for returning migrants who had completed their mandated two-week quarantine. The scheme, if implemented well, could have been a life-line for millions of struggling families. But both migrants and activists note that that the implementation of the scheme has been patchy and corrupt.

For many families, MGNREGA is just enough to make ends meet; it does not pay enough to repay loans or afford non-essentials for the family. “My family survived on 60 work days we managed to get under MGNREGA when our earning members returned home after lockdown in May,” Amanullah Miya, a 66-year-old from Majhauliya village in West Champaran district, told me. But Amanullah had to reinvest a vast majority of the income that came from MGNREGA into sending two of the children of his joint family back to Delhi.

“Now, we are completely relying on the money the kids in our joint family send home ever since they have returned to big cities for work in July,” he said. “The third one who is staying back, is adding up money to return. I unfortunately had to take a loan of Rs 50,000 before the lockdown to build a pucca house”—one made of permanent materials—“for our family with 20 members. I am unsure how we will ever pay it back except if our children work outside.” But many from the flood-affected districts—including Darbangha, Samastipur, Muzaffarpur, West Champaran and East Champaran—have not even gotten the few work days under MGNREGA that Amanullah’s family managed.

Nathuni Bin, a migrant worker from East Champaran’s Ambedkar Nagar colony, told me he had not got a single day of work under the scheme. “I was a tailor in Delhi,” Bin told me. “The lockdown forced me out of work, compelled me to return home. Now, the floods would have destroyed whatever little rice was left at home. When I can’t even feed my family without taking debt, how can I imagine adding up money to return to Delhi anytime soon? I am compelled to stay back with no help to find alternative employment reaching our neglected locality.” Bin said that apart from buying vegetables and rice on loan, his family lived off the meagre COVID-relief rations provided by the state government.

Unlike Bin, others have not even been able to get access to loans, and fear starvation. Vikram Ram, Bin’s neighbour, told me he had not got a single day of work under the scheme. “The lockdown took away our sources of livelihood, now the floods have destroyed whatever little we had cultivated,” he said. “We fear starving to death for the first time.” Ram’s colony had been completely inundated by the floods three times since July. Like him, there are many other Dalits in Ambedkar Nagar who have been neck deep in debt ever since the lockdown. The floods destroyed his paddy field and his family had been depending on MGNREGA to buy food for the family. He has not received any work days yet.

The People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, an independent body working on MGNREGA since 2004, saw a major shortfall in the effects of the scheme when it tracked the progress of MGNREGA in Bihar between July and August. According to PAEG data, since 1 April, 81.43 lakh households got new job cards in the country, out of which 11.01 lakh job cards were issued in Bihar alone. But, despite receiving job cards, few have gotten the employment it entitles them to.

PAEG’s tracking concluded that in the whole of Bihar, only 2,136 households have completed 100 days of work so far. This is far less than equally impoverished states like Madhya Pradesh, where 33,000 households got the 100 days of work they were entitled to, or the corresponding 27,000 households in Rajasthan. PAEG’s records show that between July and August, in districts like Khagaria and Sitamarhi, more than a quarter of households that demanded work under MGNREGA did not receive any. In Araria, Begusarai, Muzaffarpur and Katihar districts, a fifth of households did not receive work under MGNREGA. Mohammad Ayub, a daily wager from Araria’s Chahakpur village told me that over 70 households in his village who had submitted the forms for work under MGNREGA had not gotten a single day of work.

MK Nirala, a human-rights activist based in Gaya, who was helping returnee migrant workers with food and other essentials through the lockdown, told me he hardly knew of anyone in his native town of Gaya who benefitted from MGNREGA in the last months. Nirala said that local officials frequently claimed that they could not assigning work under MGNREGA due to the floods. “I believe these talks about floods dampening or eroding the soil, stopping MGNREGA work abruptly, is a convenient excuse being used by intermediaries who provide work days,” he said. “Apart from agricultural activities and digging soil, several other activities like flood-management works, livestock-related works, sanitation and drinking-water related works also fall under MGNREGA. Even in flood affected areas, they could have been absorbed in these activities. Gaya wasn’t flooded but the few people I know who got work, got only five days for laying pipeline and digging potholes under Nal Jal Yojana.” The Nal Jal Yojana is a state government scheme to bring drinking water to every household in the state through pipelines.

Activists and returning migrants told me the largest hurdle in getting work under MGNREGA was local corruption, with the power to offer work being fully vested in local contractors and panchayat officials. Several daily wagers I spoke to said that panchayat officials and local contractors get funds to pay labourers under MGNREGA but use machines for work such as digging ponds and lifting mud. This allows them to pocket the excess money. Ashok Kumar, an activist from Sasaram, told me that contractors often choose the months before July to use heavy machinery because the rains will wash away the evidence that work under MGNREGA was not done by hand. Kumar works for the Majdoor Kisan Union, a farmers’ union active in south-west Bihar. I heard similar accounts from villagers of 22 different villages in Banka district.

In other cases, work is not done at all, and local contractors pocket the entire fund sanctioned under MGNREGA. In most villages I visited, labourers registered under the scheme had no idea how workers would be selected for work. Often this fell to arbitrary decisions by panchayat representatives who would keep all MGNREGA records under wraps. Legally, contractors and the panchayat are required to publically display on a board the workers who are selected and the amounts that are due to the panchayat and to each worker. This occurred almost nowhere I visited. The lack of public records means that it is tough to estimate the amount of money that is siphoned away under the MGNREGA. When work under the scheme is done, workers are not often given the equipment or amenities, such as a tent for shade or medicines, that the law entitles them to.

In Birniya, one of the villages where MGNREGA money was stolen by middle-men, I met Etwari Tudu, an Adivasi daily-wager who has been unemployed since the lockdown. “MGNREGA work is provided more on paper than in reality,” he told me. Referring to the officials tasked with implementing MGNREGA—such as programme officers, rojgar sevaks, mukhiyas and bank officers, who transfer the funds for work—he said that when they form a nexus, “it becomes easy for these intermediaries to siphon off money in the name of the beneficiaries.” Alongside extensive corruption under MGNREGA, Tudu told me that local officials have constantly harassed Adivasis for cultivating local land that they are entitled to under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. He said this was an issue that locals had been fighting since 2008, but consecutive governments and local representatives had been deaf to their pleas. Tudu told me that he will be contesting in the 2020 state legislative elections from Katoria constituency, under which Birniya falls. He is contesting as a member of the New Bharat Mission—an unregistered grass-roots political party—and is one of several grassroot leaders standing in the election against the failed implementation of FRA, MGNREGA and other rural empowerment schemes.

On 20 June, the prime minister Narendra Modi announced the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Abhiyan to provide livelihood opportunities to returnee migrant workers during and after the nationwide lockdown. The scheme promised employment to returning migrant workers in 25 different sectors in 116 districts. The central government did not announce an estimate or target for the number of migrants who find work through GKRA. However,  while speaking to the media on 23 May, Nitish Kumar promised that no worker would have to leave the state again.

Opposition leaders have argued that GKRA is being used to escape accountability for failing to properly apply MGNREGA. Brinda Karat, a politician from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in an opinion article in The Hindu, wrote, “Last year, under MGNREGA, in these 116 districts taken together, an average of just 43.7 workdays were created, which was lower than the national average of 50 days.” The article continued, “This poor record of provision of work may have been one of the reasons for the higher rates of migration from these districts. Instead of new schemes, why should MGNREGA not be expanded to give work to all workers? This is a legal right, whereas the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan has no such legal binding on the administration.” The GKRA scheme is due to end in October and the Bihar government has spent only 50 percent of the Rs 17,000 crore that was allocated for the scheme.

To deal with a lack of jobs in Bihar, the state government has also been advertising government-run training programmes. In July, the central government announced that several departments including industry, water resources, urban development, road construction, agriculture and minor irrigation would create job opportunities for returnee migrant workers. Following the skill profiling of over 80,000 workers under the Jeevika Wing—a state government department that promotes rural livelihoods—of the government of Bihar, skill training programmes were started to help provide them alternative livelihood.

“Initially, when we began skill training of workers in agriculture sector, there was only marginal turnout in each batch of 35 persons,” a junior scientist employed by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra—agricultural training centres under the ministry of agriculture—told me on the condition of anonymity. “The training period for each batch was three days in which we used to teach mushroom planting, beekeeping, modern techniques of farming and vermicompost production.”

The junior scientist said most trainees were not benefitting from the training. “The approach of the government officials directing us was to fill up names of people being trained on paper to make tall claims before election,” he told me. “Nobody sounded keen on assuring them help. What discouraged the youths and farmers most was the lack of clarity on how much time it will take them to get funds and the support needed to become self-reliant. The skill-training programme lacks transparency or a timeline and that is its biggest shortcoming.” Adesh Titarmare, the director of Bihar’s agricultural department, did not respond to questions regarding these shortcomings.

A government attempt to employ returning migrants in new small-scale production units has also been failing. Officials in the Bihar government’s industry department told me they saw potential candidates willing to join small-scale units get discouraged because of delays in assuring employment. “There were two major hindrances we faced while interviewing different clusters of returnee migrants skilled in embroidery work, tailoring, paver cement block works and garments,” a gazetted officer with the department, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “A number of workers from Patna district were called on multiple occasions between July and August. They needed clarity on when they would be hired, which none of us were able to provide. We were only informed to tell them about their roles.”

Even the units built to employ returning workers were lacking equipment and were not suited for the form of labour that most skilled migrants were used to. The officer told me that the state government has begun a small unit of paver cement and readymade garments in the outskirts of Patna. “The machines for only one unit have arrived till date,” she told me. “Because of the delays, a lot of these workers stopped turning up eventually. Another challenge we faced in convincing them was because most of these workers had worked with big companies in cities.  There their work was specified unlike the requirement in small units our department planned to establish. For example, a tailor who would be skilled in doing the buttons and zip while manufacturing pants in a Delhi firm would be expected to stitch an entire pant-shirt outfit in Patna.” 

Pankaj Kumar Singh, the director of Bihar’s industry department, did not respond to questions about the failure of the state’s small-scale units. Mihir Kumar Singh, the principal secretary of Bihar’s labour department, did not respond to questions about failed attempts at creating employment in the state. Nitish Kumar also did not respond to any queries about the failure of NREGA, GKRA, small-scale units or the skill training programme.