New Delhi: Activists have expressed disappointment over a recent Supreme Court judgment on the timely payment of wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The judgment, delivered on May 18, was delivered in response to a petition filed by NGO Swaraj Abhiyan.
According to activists who are part of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, the “much awaited Supreme Court judgement in the Swaraj Abhiyan PIL has let down millions of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers – the most marginalised citizens of India who need employment and social security. The court has ignored the wealth of evidence against the brazen violations of the legal entitlements of NREGA workers and has allowed the Central government to get away with a series fallacious interpretations of the employment guarantee act”.
In 2015, Swaraj Abhiyan had filed a public interest litigation asking the court to intervene on three issues related to the Act: reduction in funds for the programme by using an ‘approved labour budget’; delays in wage and compensation payment; and the lack of social audits.
By setting pre-approved labour budgets, the Centre had said that states will be unable to create work under the MGNREGA if the employment generated crosses the budget outlay. The petitioners said this went against the spirit of the Act, which says work should be created whenever there is demand. The bench, though, said it did not agree with this assessment, as “the Central Government is statutorily empowered to scrutinize and assess the funds to be released to the State Governments and Union Territory Administrations for the purposes of the Act”. The Centre also argued that it often releases funds over and above the labour budget when states need it. The court said that since no state has said they are not receiving enough funds or are facing an arbitrary cap, the petitioners were not in a position to raise that complaint.
The NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, however, feels that it is difficult to approve a labour budget in advance and predict how much demand there will be. They have said in a statement:
The Central Government had argued that as some states are unable to fully utilise their labour budget, there is a need to rationalizing the funds allocated to them. In doing so, it fails to acknowledge that the labour budget is only an estimate of the projected demand for work in the coming financial year. First, it is impossible for anyone to accurately predict the demand for NREGA work, as it depends on various factors such as availability of alternative employment, wage revisions and crop yield. Second, early throttling of funds through “approved labour budget” causes the field functionaries to use it as a central order to not register work of labourers. Third, the inability of states to spend the entire funds allocated to them does not cause any loss to the public exchequer, as allocations for the subsequent year are based on the balance money available to states. Finally, from a moral standpoint, it’s unfair to make the most vulnerable wait for funds to trickle in to get work instead of getting work proactively.
The activists were happy with some parts of the judgment – including the court’s direction to the Centre to pay wages on time. However, they have argued that the order would have been more effective if the bench had given clear directives on clearing pending payments and explicitly holding the Centre accountable for delayed payments made to states. Also bringing up alleged non-compliance with previous judgments, the statement said:
“The Morcha and PAEG are also disappointed by the failure of the Court to take cognizance of the brazen violations of its earlier orders in this case. On 13 May 2016, the court had ordered the government to release adequate funds for timely payment of wages, pay compensation to workers who receive their wages with delays, increase the scale of employment and ensure the effective functioning of state and central employment guarantee councils.”