Labour

NREGA Workers Protest Low Wages by Returning Five Rupees to PM Modi

Workers holding up the letters they are sending PM Narendra Modi. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

Workers holding up the letters they are sending PM Narendra Modi. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

Hundreds of NREGA workers from Manika in the Latehar district of Jharkhand have decided to send a letter, along with 5 rupees each, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi today.

In a sarcastic attempt to highlight the government’s expenditure priorities and protest against the low NREGA wages even in times of drought, the workers have talked about how the government has raised the NREGA wages from 162 rupees to 167 rupees per day this year, while the minimum wage in Jharkhand is 212 rupees per day. “We feel very lucky, because in 17 states the increase was even less. It sounds like NREGA workers in Odisha are now considered very well-off because their wages have not increased at all,” the letter starts off with saying.

Workers protesting in Manika. Credit: Jean Dreze

Workers protesting in Manika. Credit: Jean Dreze

“Actually, we are very concerned,” the letter goes on. The government must be really short of money if it is unable to raise NREGA wages to the minimum wage, that too when one third of the rural population is affected by drought.”

Because of this “concern”, the workers have decided to return the extra five rupees to the government. “We feel that you need the extra five rupees more than we do, since your government has so many expenses. To implement the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, you will have to spend an additional one lakh crore rupees at least on salaries and pensions of government employees. Defence expenditure is about 2.5 lakh crore rupees. You must also be spending a lot of money on tax concessions for big companies, aside from giving them cheap land and other resources…We hope that this will help you to keep your corporate friends and government employees happy,” the workers say, in a unique protest against the government’s expenditure choices.

Workers at the rally in Manika. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

Workers at a rally in Manika on Sunday. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

This action was initiated by the Grameen Swaraj Mazdoor Sangh, a local organisation of rural workers. Members of the group are struggling to secure their rights under NREGA, including employment on demand and payment within 15 days. The group has allegedly been facing harassment from the Jharkhand Jan Mukti Parishad, an armed outfit apparently formed to counter Maoist influence with police support.

Workers holding up the five rupees and letters they will send. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

Workers holding up the five rupees and letters they will send. Photo courtesy Jean Dreze

The Supreme Court, activists, academics and workers have been asking the government pay more attention to the NREGA recently, demanding an increase in the scale of work and the payment of wages in a timely manner. They have all argued that in times of drought and crisis, the scheme provides a safety net to the rural population.

An erroneous reference to water trains has been removed from this article.