Bundelkhand: The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is supposed to give people the right to obtain some basic livelihood in or near their village, but what happens if some of the poorest in the country, after toiling for several weeks at work sites, are simply denied any wages?
The issue of delays in these payments is a familiar one. It is well-known that wages are frequently delayed beyond the legally stipulated 15-day period without even providing the mandated compensation. However, it is generally believed that this delay is only for a few days or weeks. But what if the delay extends to several months or almost a year, so much so that the victims of this non-payment begin to lose hope? This surely is a much more serious matter, but this is exactly what appears to be happening in some remote villages in Bundelkhand.
At the time of my recent visit to a hamlet inhabited by Sahariya tribals in the Jhabarpura village, I was met with complaints of non-payment of wages even for work that was done last summer. This village is located in Talbehat block of Lalitpur district (Uttar Pradesh). Nearly everyone in a group of 30 – except perhaps the older people – that I spoke to had similar complaints.
Briefly, the complaint of these people is that at the time of acute drought last year, they worked for several days under MGNREGA, expecting prompt payment. This community generally suffers from hunger and malnutrition, but those were some of the most difficult days for them. When they were not paid for several days, they complained, but when nothing happened for a few weeks, they even stopped complaining. Their dues ought to be cleared immediately and compensatory payment should also be given to them for the delay.
Next, I visited a village on the Madhya Pradesh side of Bundelkhand – the Sahariya hamlet of Kauria village. This village is located in the Jatara block of Tikamgarh district. Here, in a group meeting of about 15 villagers, I was told about the work done by several workers last year for which they have not yet been paid.
However, I could not obtain clarity about the nature of their work. Some villagers and an activist explained that this was the work of the Kapil Dhara scheme which had been linked to MGNREGA. Whatever the details, the fact remains that the work was completed several months ago, the payment for which has not yet been made.
Pointing to increased possibilities of fraud which can result in non-payment of wages, an activist handling such issues on a daily basis said that here relatives or family members of some petty officials associated with the employment guarantee like rojgar sahayaks have also got dealership of bank kiosks in rural areas, making it easier to commit fraud. I left the village wondering whether the non-payment was part of a wider fraud.
My next halt was at the Vangai village (also located in Jatara block) where sitting under a shady tree in a group meeting of ten villagers, Shyamlal, a villager, alleged that in and around October he had worked for about one month under MGNREGA but he had still not received the payment. He complained that some other villagers had similarly been deprived of their wages under this scheme.
The complaints of wage deprivation in all these three villages point towards the possibility of a much larger problem of villagers being deprived MGNREGA (and related) wages, particularly in the more remote and inaccessible villages. This should be taken up with a sense of urgency by the government so that all pending payments can be cleared within a time limit. The government should conduct its own surveys with the participation of weaker sections regarding the non-payment of wages.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.