The new year of 2014 started on a terrible note with the gruesome news hitting the national headlines that two migrant labourers of western Odisha had their hands chopped off by their labour contractor over a minor dispute.
It once again highlighted the need to work on solutions to the issue of distress migration. It is our understanding that migration from the western Odisha region is caused by distress and is not aspirational in nature.
SPS is supporting a network of 7 partner grassroots organizations in western Odisha called the Western Odisha NREGA Consortium (WONC). The work of WONC has been focussed on partnerships with Gram Panchayats to make MGNREGA a success. The partnership takes the form of organizing MGNREGA workers (active workers, not merely job card holders) into wage seeker committees at the village level. These are federated at the panchayat level and then at the block level. The committees have played a big role in ensuring demand and work creation and timeliness of wage payments. Where pressure has been created on MGNREGA implementation interface, work creation and asset building under MGNREGA has ensured that distress migration is stopped.
It was decided by all the WONC partners that a state level consultation should be organizeed at Bhubaneswar to highlight the plight of migrant workers in western Odisha and press for necessary changes in MGNREGA implementation so that distress migration could be mitigated through MGNREGA leverage.
More than 150 delegates from across Odisha, representing MGNREGA workers, civil society activists and PRIs were part of this event, organized at IDCOL Auditorium, Bhubaneswar on 23rd December 2014. Dr. Mihir Shah, President, Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF) was the Chief Guest. Shri Zulfiquar Haider, CEO of BRLF and Shri R. Srinivasan, Program Officer, Ford Foundation were also present to interact with the delegates. The Minister for Panchayat Raj, Shri Arun Sahu had committed to be part of the deliberations but cancelled his programme at the very last minute.
The consultation also became like a large jan sunwayi, where all participants highlighted the delayed payment of MGNREGA wages as the major issue hampering MGNREGA work. We were informed that the state was facing a serios funding crunch with respect to MGNREGA, with funds not coming in from the central government. It was an eye-opener to know that several Block Development Officers of the state had protested with the state government on the issue of delay in release of funds, as this was creating tremendous problems on the ground. They had to face constant pressure from MGNREGA workers for opening work and payment of wages.
Other participants spoke on the impact of MGNREGA on reducing distress migration. Partners from WONC cited examples from their work where distress migration had beens stopped because of effective functioning of MGNREGA.
Dr. Mihir Shah expressed the view that for MGNREGA to be really effective the will of the people has to find expression in action plan formulation, implementation, vigilance and monitoring of MGNREGA work. He said that the work of WONC shows a way forward and he hoped that the state government would initiate steps in mission mode to mitigate the distress that migrants are subject to.
A booklet entitled Mitigating Distress Migration in western Odisha through MGNREGA Leverage was thereafter released by the guests. The booklet is the first in a series called “MGNREGA Successes” brought out by the National Consortium on MGNREGA. It brings together several cases of migrant families who have been able to find a sustainable source of livelihoods through better use of MGNREGA.