NREGA 2010: Politics in Slow Motion?

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published Published on Dec 9, 2010   modified Modified on Dec 9, 2010
More things change more they remain the same! UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi has given her full support; two Congress chief ministers have written to the Prime Minister; a High Court (A.P) has ruled that the current wage rate violated the Minimum Wages Act 1948 --- but the rural workers are still getting the same old rate. 

When the MGNREGA workers lifted their 47-day dharna at Jaipur after the Centre and the State ‘agreed’ to pay minimum wages, it was thought a follow up action was a matter of just a few days. This was so particularly because the AP High Court had already initiated contempt proceedings against the AP and central governments for violating its July 2009 order and that the order also entitles the workers to arrears on account of underpayment. However, the government is yet to issue a notification to match its words with deeds.   

Under Section 22 (1) (A) of the Act, the Centre has to bear the burden of paying the MGNREGA wages. Apparently it is willing to pay for the new rate but is against linking the wages to the consumer price index for Agricultural Labourers. A section of the Finance Ministry wants to pass on the increased financial burden to the states. However, the states have been pleading that the whole idea of the employment guarantee Act was mooted with the centre’s undertaking of the wage component.

First Chief Minister to write to the Prime Minister was Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan. The state’s new minimum wage would be Rs 135 for unskilled workers as per the revised rates but there is a catch in it: The enhanced wages would be applicable only after a notification is issued by the Central Government under the provisions of the MGNREG Act. 

Gehlot’s then counterpart in AP, K Rosiah had warned of huge embarrassment to the UPA government in a similar letter to PM. The letter clearly states that the Rural Development Ministry was duty bound to revise the wage rates since it had not challenged the AP High Court order in an appellate court. The court had stayed the operation of section 6 (1) of MGNREGA that proposes a rate that is less than the minimum wages. Rosiah’s letter requested the Prime Minister to not only ensure compliance but also pay the differential of wages paid since the court judgment in July 2009.

Right now it is clearly up to the Prime Minister’s office to initiate the process of notifying the new wage rate. However, the PMO is moving in circles collecting the views and objections of various ministries. The Union Rural Development Ministry is believed to be particularly hesitant about implementing the order. 

If the government so decides, it can change the law in such a way that a part of the wage indexing could be shared between the centre and the states but that is not going to be easy. It can also stop the state governments from arbitrarily raising the MGNREGA wages for populist reasons. However what is clear is that it will be next to impossible for the UPA to wriggle out of the commitment altogether. Obviously, the next best thing for the opponents of the minimum wages is to delay implementation, which they seem to be doing very well. 

The court ruling has made it further difficult for the government to violate the statutory minimum wages. As mentioned in the earlier News Alerts, many experts have noted that the payment of anything less than minimum wages by the government was not only unconstitutional but it also amounted to ‘forced labour.’ This was corroborated by some of India’s best-known jurists and judges in support of the demand for minimum wages. The letter was enclosed by Mrs Sonia Gandhi in her note to the Prime Minister. (Please see links below for texts) The working group of the UPA’s National Advisory Council (NAC) has already recommended payment of minimum wages and the Central Employment Guarantee Council has endorsed the indexing of wages with inflation.  

The real wages of the poor rural workers have been falling due to rising food prices even though a simple wage indexing protects government servants against inflation. Obviously, the workers get lesser wages every month for no fault of theirs. As many as 19 states have minimum wages more than Rs 100 but the MGNREGA workers are being denied their rightful wages because of the freeze at Rs 100.

For the civil society and peoples’ movements working closely with the rural poor, the matter of MGNREGA reforms does not end at fair wages. They have been pressing for imposing penalty on government officials for delaying wage payments, compensation to workers for delayed payments, workers right to form registered unions and improvement in the system of work measurement.

For more on the subject, please open the following links and im4change news alerts issued earlier in the year:

What’s wrong with MGNREGA?

NREGA pay row sparks violence, 1 dead by Kabita Chowdhury, 

Increasing cases of irregularities in MGNREGS, 

States must pay minimum wages to workers under nrega: Pronab Sen by Sreelatha Menon, The Business Standard, 7 December, 2010,

Assam: Mahanta Claims nrega Scam Cost Rs 180 Cr, Outlook Magazine, 6 December, 2010,

Will Unique Identity Number derail nrega? by Alok Pandey and Tanima Biswas, NDTV, 2 December, 2010,

Rajasthan govt to impose penalty for delaying MGNREGA payment, The Hindustan Times, 30 November, 2010,

‘Keep UID out of MGNREGA', The Hindu, 1 December, 2010,

Media invited to witness the real dance of democracy

MGNREGA: Mixed success so far

The biggest NREGA scam in Rajasthan

Social audit of NREGS in Araria reveals corruption

Poor people unite against corrupt sarpanches

Is NREGA II a product of a complacent UPA II? 

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