Hundreds of workers of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) have been gathering at Jantar Mantar in Delhi since September 11 to protest against delayed wage payments, stagnation of wages and shrinking days of work.
The five-day dharna has been organised under the banner of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a country-wide coalition of organisations fighting for the rights of workers under the rural employment guarantee scheme.
On September 13, the workers – including a majority of women workers – sat at the protest site, addressed by activists, and shouted slogans for their demands and against the Modi-led NDA government, which has been weakening the NREGA scheme that began in 2006.
The workers had come mainly from Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
The scheme guarantees at least 100 days of employment to every rural household whose adult members apply to do unskilled manual work, which is primarily supposed to be construction of rural assets.
But the scheme has been starved of funds over the years, and the under-funding has led to diminishing levels of employment generation.
The NREGA Sangharsh Morcha points out that the Centre’s budget for the scheme peaked in 2009-10 at 0.6% as a proportion of the GDP, but has since then steadily declined to around 0.3%.
As a result, an average of just 46 days of work per employed household were generated over the past five years, according to the Morcha. Only about 8.5% all participating households were able to access 100 days of work during the same period.
Naukunia Devi, a 55-year-old woman worker from Araria district in Bihar, told Newsclick that she had worked for just about two weeks since the beginning of this year, and she was yet to receive her wages.
“They (the functionaries) tell us there is no work, that only when the government provides work will we get employment. And even for wages, they tell us the same thing, that we will pay you when the government gives us money,” she said.
Some other workers present also said a delay of 2 to 3 months in payment was the norm, and sometimes the wages they receive are lesser than what they are entitled to.
Among the workers’ main demands is that the minimum NREGA wages be hiked to Rs 600. In fact, the NREGA wages are lower than the legal minimum wages in 17 states. The last time that the centrally decided and disbursed NREGA wages were aligned with the state minimum wages was in 2009.
In 2015, the Mahendra Dev committee had recommended realigning NREGA wages with the state minimum wages, but this was rejected by the Finance Ministry. Recently, a committee of the Ministry of Rural Development, headed by its Additional Secretary, re-examined the issue of NREGA wages and concluded in its final report that there was no need to bring the scheme wages at par with minimum wages.
Speaking to Newsclick, economist Jean Dreze, who is part of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, said the NREGA wages had been stagnant in real terms since 2009.
“Every year, the central government just raises the wages according to the consumer price index for agricultural labourers (CPIAL), but that is based on an outdated price index. In some states, wages have risen by as little as Re 1. In Jharkhand, the NREGA wage two years ago was Rs 162. Last year, this was raised to Rs 167 and this year it became Rs 168. But the minimum wage in Jharkhand is Rs 220,” he said.
“This is illegal, as the Supreme Court had declared that you can’t pay workers below the minimum wages. Recently, the high courts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and some other states had also ruled that workers in the state cannot be paid below the minimum wages.”
Another demand is for the government to ensure that the workers be compensated for the number of days that the wage is delayed. Under NREGA, workers are entitled to compensation for delayed wage payments at the paltry rate of 0.05% per day. But even this is not paid to the workers.
Then there is the issue of illegal conditionalities being attached to NREGA entitlements. For example, employment under the scheme has been made conditional on the worker possessing an Aadhaar number seeded into his or her bank account. There have also been cases of officials denying NREGA work to households without toilets, under the pressure of Swachh Bharat Mission targets.
The Act also includes provisions for redressal of workers’ grievances, social audits and even penalties for functionaries who don’t do their jobs properly, but all these provisions are ignored by central and state governments.
The organisations which have come together to form the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha include Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Rajasthan), Pashchim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti, Chhattisgarh Kisan Mazdoor Andolan, Jan Jagran Sangharsh Sangathan (Bihar) and Sangatin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (Uttar Pradesh), among other groups and campaigns, besides individual activists.