Mumbai, India
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Omkar Rathod was thankful for the company of hundreds of fellow migrant workers as they trudged home to far-flung villages once lockdown had shut Indian industry.

But he didn't realise he would soon be competing with them for jobs.

Back in his village in northern India since March, Rathod is vying for work under the world's largest jobs programs: the only option for the millions of migrant workers who face mass job losses in a struggling economy and a raging pandemic.

"If there were 15 people for a job earlier, now there are 200. Work for eight days is getting done in one day," Rathod, 45, said from Nawabganj in Uttar Pradesh.

"This scheme is our only hope for work in our village. I got 15 days of work under the job scheme in May but nothing after that," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

India Mumbai fishermen

A fisherman throws a basket filled with fish to customers at a fish market amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, on 7th September. PICTURE: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas

More than 82 million of the 98 million people who applied for jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act since April have secured work, a record that tops the number of new jobs created under the programme each year in India.

But the scheme - worth billions of dollars - still falls far short of what is needed in a country with an estimated 100 million migrant workers. 

"This scheme is our only hope for work in our village. I got 15 days of work under the job scheme in May but nothing after that."

- Migrant worker Omkar Rathod

Experts say the fund - which has already been topped up - is once more close to spent. 

"This meets the demand up to September. But it is not enough. States should be asked to redraw labour budgets and be assured that adequate funding will be provided," said Ravi Srivastava, director of the Centre for Employment Studies at research organisation Institute for Human Development.

The rural development ministry did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but officials of five states that recorded among the highest number of applicants said they had provided work to almost every job seeker.

The scheme was created to provide steady wages and jobs for people, who were in turn creating assets for their villages, be it conserving water or improving roads. 

It was never envisioned as a bandage in a global pandemic.

Vallabhacharya Pandey, a social activist who works with migrant workers in Uttar Pradesh, said the scheme had worked well in the initial weeks of the pandemic, when the only people seeking work were locals.

"But the return of migrant workers has overburdened the program," he said.

India New Delhi migrants workers2

Migrant workers and their families wait to get on a bus to reach a railway station to board a train to their home state of Uttar Pradesh, during an extended lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, on 26th May. PICTURE: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File photo.

India's estimated 100 million migrant workers were among the worst hit by India's strict lockdown, which triggered a mass exodus from city jobs at garment factories, building sites and brick kilns.

Migrant labourers took to the roads en masse and walked back to the countless villages that dot the map and offer few opportunities to earn.

After months back home, they said some employers were now sending buses or buying air tickets to get workers back, but many were still sat idle in their rural outposts awaiting any word on work.

India's economy shrank by almost 24 per cent on year in the second quarter, the worst of all major economies, even as the number of Indians with the virus topped 4.2 million, exceeded only by the US tally of 6.2 million.

"The pandemic has come at a time when sectors of construction and manufacturing were already ailing. So even if they want to migrate to cities again, where do they go?” asked Raghunath Singh, vice-president of the All India Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

"The pandemic has come at a time when sectors of construction and manufacturing were already ailing. So even if they want to migrate to cities again, where do they go?”

- Raghunath Singh, vice-president of the All India Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

Besides, jobs in cities have lost their sheen for many as nearly half of urban workers went without work, pay or financial assistance in the first three months of lockdown, studies show, with many reluctant to return.

Launched more than 15 years ago to offer a secure livelihood to rural India, the scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act guarantees applicants at least 100 days of work for average daily wages of 200 rupees. It has been credited with saving families from poverty, and empowering women and the socially-marginalised.

The scheme has provided about 800,000 households with an average of 34 work days this year, according to official data, with no data available for individuals.

But those figures do not begin to tell the whole story, according to a group of activists, academics and researchers tracking the scheme.

"Unmet demand is wider than it appears in the data as even a single day of work gets recorded as job provided," said MS Raunaq, secretary of the collective, called Peoples’ Action of Employment Guarantee (PAEG).

Local officials said that "satiating the demand" was a challenge and attributed the shortfall to delays in feeding data, and jobs offered at a time when the workers were not available.

India Ahmedabad migrant workers

Migrant workers and their families, who had left during a lockdown, walk at a platform after they returned from their home state of Uttar Pradesh, after authorities eased lockdown restrictions that were imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ahmedabad, India, on 1st July. PICTURE: Reuters/Amit Dave/File photo

Officials overseeing the program in five states contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they were creating jobs that could absorb more workers despite a backdrop of strikes, floods and tight budgets.

Jobs include planting trees, building roads and cleaning canals - useful yet rarely tasks that tap into an applicant's trade.

"Migrant workers are mostly skilled and earned 500 rupees a day, so 220 rupees won't keep them in rural areas," said PC Kishan, the scheme's commissioner in Rajasthan, referring to the overarching aim of the programme to slow emergency [distress] migration from India's web of villages.

Omkar Rathod, for one, wants to go back to the town where, pre-virus, he earned 7,000 rupees a month at a car factory. 

He even got himself tested for coronavirus, hoping a certificate would help as the pandemic surges in rural India.

But the job contractor told him there was no work yet - so he has no choice but to feed the family cows, stay put and nurse his worries.

"Half a year is gone already and there is no work, neither outside nor in the village. What will we do?"