India’s Rural Development Minister, Narendra Singh Tomar, revealed on Friday that “there has been an increase of 52.11 percent in total employment generation” through the Mahatma Gandhi rural job scheme during the COVID-19 lockdown period.
The scheme was launched by Manmohan Singh of the Indian National Congress Party, in 2005, shortly after he was elected Prime Minister.
But in 2015, his successor, the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, mocked the scheme in an address to Parliament, saying: “With song and dance and drum beat, I will continue with the scheme.” Modi also dismissed it as a “living monument” to poverty decades after India had achieved independence from the British Empire.
However, this very scheme has now come to the Modi government's rescue during the prolonged lockdown, which was enforced from midnight on 24 March to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Though employment in other sectors has declined drastically during the lockdown, rural employment had witnessed a rise of 52.11 percent in the period, according to a statement given by Tomar to Parliament's upper house, or Rajya Sabha on Friday thanks to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
The scheme generated more than 1.3 billion working days or shifts in 2019 between April to August. But during the same period in 2020, it generated about 2 billion working days.
A recent report by International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had estimated that as many as 4.1 million youths in India lost their job because of the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly in the construction and farm sectors.
The sudden enforcement of national lockdown, which had kept more than 1.3 billion citizens at home, pushed the economy to its first contraction in more than 40 years and affected migrant workers the most.
Thousands of daily wage workers trudged miles to return to their villages, which was turning into a major social problem for the federal government headed by Modi.
After almost a month of lockdown, the federal government, however, clarified that works under the rural employment scheme could be allowed.