NREGA Workers Bring Rights Battle to Delhi, Claim Centre Is "Slow Poisoning" the Scheme

Low budget, poor pay, delays in payment are being used as tools to lower the interest of people in the scheme, say activists.

Holding the Narendra Modi government responsible for “slow poisoning” the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) by deliberately keeping its budget and pay structure low and allowing delays in payments, a large number of workers of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) today began a five-day agitation at Jantar Mantar in the national capital.

Coming together under the banner of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, the workers, over five days, will be highlighting the various aspects through which the employment programme is allegedly being throttled. While a case is also on in the Supreme Court, which is hearing issues pertaining to budgetary demands by states and Centre’s allocation to each, as well as delays in payments and the lack of social audit, the agitation will cover a broader spectrum of issues ranging from stagnation of wages, routine violations of workers’ legal rights and demands for strict implementation of the Act and also expansion of entitlements.

“Slow poisoning” a “living monument”

At a press conference organised to bring the plight of the NREGA workers before the media by presenting some testimonies, social activists working in the field alleged that deliberate attempts were being made to undermine the scheme. Anuradha Talwar of Pashchim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti spoke about how Prime Minister Modi had a few years ago ridiculed the scheme terming it a “living monument” of the failure of the Congress to tackle poverty. She said now the Centre was “slow poisoning” the scheme.

In his reply to the Motion of Thanks to the president’s address in Lok Sabha in March 2015, Modi had stated that he would keep the pet scheme of the Congress – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) – alive as a “living monument” of poverty.

Reacting to allegation from the Congress members that he was not implementing the scheme, Modi had proclaimed:

Do you think, I will put an end to the scheme. My political wisdom does not allow me to do it. This is a living monument of your failure to tackle poverty in 60 years. With song and dance and drum beat, I will continue with the scheme.

Talwar said, the assertion apart, “attempts are being made to kill NREGA”. For this, she said, budgets for the scheme have been decreased, the gram sabhas are not being allowed to decide the labour budget or the asset creation work, wages much lower than minimum wages are being paid, and fallacious arguments are being forwarded for denying equal wages to men and women. All this is being done so that no one remains interested in the scheme.”

On the flipside, she said, while after the launch of NREGA migration to cities had reduced, it has now resumed as rural distress has once again increased. “People are not getting adequate work in the villages and farming has become loss making for most. So the migration due to distress has again started.”

But, Talwar said, the NREGA workers have decided not to let the Centre kill the programme. “We thought there was no pointing fighting in the states and have therefore brought our battle to Delhi”. Apart from the protests at Jantar Mantar, the agitated workers would also be holding demonstrations near several party offices and a ‘thali bajao (bang the plate)’ programme has also been planned on the lines of village protests.

Negative balance a big issue with states

Richa Singh of Sangtin Samooh, Uttar Pradesh, was equally vocal in her criticism of the NDA regime and declared that the workers won’t let the government slow poison NREGA so easily. She claimed that several of the states, including Uttar Pradesh, suffered on account of low budgets for the scheme. “In December 2016, UP had a Rs 600 crore negative balance and so how was it supposed to pay for more work under NREGA.”

She also said that introduction of Aadhaar in linking bank accounts of the NREGA workers has led to several problems. “In one case it took us over 18 months to trace how Rs 6,000 to one workers went into another person’s account. Then we have a village in which the bank accounts of 11 people have been linked to wrong Aadhaar numbers”.

Allocation for NREGA has actually decreased

Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan said as against a budget of Rs 40,100 crore for NREGA in 2010-11, only Rs 48,000 crore were allocated under the head in this fiscal and out of that too Rs 11,000 crore were the previous year’s dues. So with the effective amount being Rs 37,000 crores, he said the allocation has come down in the last seven to eight years.

Dey said the lower allocation has also meant lower amounts in the hands of the states and as such five states now have negative balances and therefore unable to allocate work under NREGA with over half a year to go. Even when it came to releasing amounts, he said, the Centre usually released most of the funds in the first and second quarters. This year about Rs 33,000 crore have been released and that leaves just about a quarter of the total annual allocation for the remaining year.

He said the matter before the Supreme Court also covers how the Centre has been allowing lesser number of person-days of work to the states. “For example Telangana had sought 18 crore person-days but got only 8 crore person-days from the Centre.”

Rural households got just 10-15 days of work per year

In view of these issues, the activists and NREGA workers are demanding that government must allocate as much budget as required to ensure that there is work on demand for all rural households, up to 100 days, without wage arrears. Over the past five year, this number was just about 46 days per employed household or 10-15 days per rural household.

An activist, Mukesh, said there were 10.84 crore NREGA workers in the country but the public expenditure on the head had declined over the years from 0.60% of GDP in 2009-10 to 0.27 % in 2015-16 showing lack of support from the Centre. After many years though, it had shown a marginal uptick and touched 0.31% of GDP in the last fiscal.

Nearly 80% payments are delayed

Another independent researcher, Sakina, said a study of 90 lakh payments for over 3400 gram panchayats in 10 states had revealed that only 21% of the payments were made in the stipulated 15-day period. Among those that were accounted as delays, only in 4% cases compensation was approved.

Sakina said in actual terms the compensation which needed to be paid by the Centre was also getting reduced because the government was not calculating the delays after the fund transfer order was signed at the block level. “For them once a voucher was signed at the block level, it amounted to a payment irrespective of whether the amount got credited or not on time,” she said. As such in 2016-17, while Rs 4,215 lakhs was calculated as compensation (albeit in a flawed manner) only Rs 170 lakh was approved and further only Rs 103 lakh was actually paid.

The activists also lamented that there was no redressal system in place and usually it was the block development officer, who was also the implementing officer for NREGA, to whom the complaints went. They said while the Act was now 12 years old, the redressal mechanism has not been streamlined and 10 states have not even formulated a grievance redress mechanism. “There is no social audit or ombudsman in most places despite the Act making the provisions for them,” they said.

Testimonies point to lacunae

Two NREGA workers also narrated how they have not been getting adequate work and wages under the act. Manjushri from Muzaffarpur in Bihar said as against the promised work of 100 days, they actually got just about 50 days of work in the state. She said false cases are foisted on workers who raise their voice against the system.

Dakhu Devi from Rajasthan pointed out how workers were actually getting paid only Rs 60-Rs 70 per day for NREGA work. Activists are demanding that “the wage must at least be a living wage which allows rural households to meet their basic needs and lead their lives with dignity”.

She also said due to linkage of Aadhaar biometrics the NREGA workers are now falling prey to the vices of banking correspondents and claimed that in her case the banking correspondent took her thumb impression twice and withdrew Rs 2000 in her name but only paid her Rs 1,000 in wages.

Adding to this aspect, Dey said while Aadhaar was meant to sort out corruption, it has become a reason for it. “With these banking correspondents sometimes even fraudulently withdrawing money from the accounts of the poor, the entire banking structure has come under cloud.”

Remove conditions, improve accountability

Apart from adequate work, just wages and their timely payment, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha had also demanded that conditionalites such as Aadhaar number linkage to bank account, uploading of photograph on electronic job card and denial of work to households not possessing toilets should be removed.

For better accountability, the Morcha has demanded that the Centre ensure that every state has an active and independent social audit unit, grievance redress rules and two ombudspersons per district.

It has also called for allowing NREGA works to take place only as per the gram panchayat plans and for expanding the entitlements by increasing the wage rate to Rs 600 and the number of days of guaranteed work to 240 days per person, with the guarantee of work being extended to the urban areas as well.