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India: Government pays little heed to NREGA workers’ demands

15 September

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[15 September 2017, New Delhi]

For the past five days, hundreds of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers and their supporters from across the country have gathered at Jantar Mantar to demand the implementation of the employment guarantee act in letter and spirit. They are demanding a substantial increase in the NREGA wages, timely payment of wages, implementation of local plans, expansion of existing entitlements and adequate budget for their demands. The demands also included immediate implementation of maternity entitlements as per the National Food Security Act (NFSA), passage of the Grievance Redress Bill, increase in the social security pensions amount and delinking of all entitlements from Aadhaar. Several means were employed to press for the demands – public meetings, demonstrations and discussions with concerned ministers and officials. Government representatives, however paid little heeds to the dharna’s demands.

Public Meetings

A large number of public meetings were held at Jantar Mantar from 11-15 September. They saw spirited speeches and discussions on the government’s anti-workers policies. Workers spoke about the attacks on their legal entitlements to work on demand, timely wages, unemployment allowance, compensation for delayed payments, planning of works etc. They also shared about the constructive livelihoods support that NREGA provided in its initial years which is systematically fading with centralisation of power. There were several testimonies on the undermining of other entitlements such as the Public Distribution System, Midday Meals, the Integrated Child Development Services, maternity entitlements as per the NFSA and social security pensions. Denial of legal rights and other services for lack of Aadhaar was a common problem across the 12-14 states from which people had gathered at Jantar Mantar.

The dharna received wide support from various quarters. Asim Roy, Sudha Bharadwaj and Ananya Bhattacharjee from the New Trade Union Initiative endorsed the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’s demand of increase in NREGA wages as per the norms set by the 15th Indian Labour Conference and Supreme Court orders in the Raptakos Brett caseto Rs 600 a day and the work entitlement to 240 days in a year. Jean Drèze, one of the architects of the employment guarantee cautioned against the threat of workers themselves losing interest in NREGA if their wages continue to remain so low and paid with such long delays. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, who was actively involved in the campaign for a national employment guarantee act in 2004 and 2005, recalled a somewhat forgotten slogan of those days which has a renewed relevance: “Trishul naheen, talwar naheen, rozgar chahiye”. Yogendra Yadav of Swaraj Abhiyan shared about the PIL on drought relief in which the Supreme Court has given several significant orders on the proper implementation of the NREGA and NFSA. There was a strong demand for expanding scope of NREGA during disasters such as drought and floods for survival and livelihoods security of the poor households.

Protests in front of political party offices, Niti Ayog and Shram Shakti Bhavan

On 12 September, people marched from Jantar Mantar to the offices of BJP, INC, JD(U) and CPI(M) to press political parties for action on their demands. The delegation that went to the BJP office met with Sudarshan Bhagat (Minister of State, Tribal Affairs) and Naveen Sinha. The party representatives promised to forward the delegation’s demands to the BJP president and also to the Minister of Rural Development. CP Joshi was met with at the INC office. He claimed to be deeply concerned with the implementation of NREGA as the Act was passed by his party and assured the delegation of discussing the Morcha’s demands with the president of India.

On 14 September, ‘thali bajao’ demonstrations were held in front of NITI Ayog and Shram Shakti Bhavan to protest against the complicity of these institutions in the current situation of rural distress. At Shram Shakti Bhavan the PS of the Minister claimed that there is little point in discussing the delegation’s demands with the Labour Minister as NREGA is implemented by the Ministry of Rural Development. No member of the delegation was allowed inside NITI Ayog and those protesting were forcibly moved away from the venue.

Meeting with Secretary, Women and Child Development

On 13 September, a delegation of five members from the dharna met Secretary Women and Child Development Rakesh Srivastava. The delegation conveyed the following demands of the dharna: (1) immediate implementation of the maternity entitlements under the NFSA, including all eligible women since September 2013; (2) universal and unconditional maternity entitlements of at least Rs. 6000 for all pregnant and lactating women, except those who are receiving equivalent or higher compensation from any other source; (3) not linked to the number of children or age of the woman, as that is fundamentally discriminatory to both women and children and (4) increase in budget for supplementary nutrition through locally prepared foods – preferably hot cooked meals to be supplied to all pregnant and lactating women at the local Anganwadi Centre. The Secretary agreed to put forward the concerns and issues of the delegation of the dharna to Maneka Gandhi, Minister WCD.

Meeting with Finance Minister

On 13 September, a delegation of 12 members from the dharna met with Arun Jaitley, the Finance Minister. The delegation conveyed the following demands of the dharna (1) substantial increase the NREGA wage rate; (2) payment to all NREGA workers within 15 days; (3) automatic payment of compensation for delays in wage payments, along with an increase in the compensation norm from 0.05% of the amount due to 0.5% per day; (4) increase in the guarantee of work to 200 days in years of disasters such as droughts and floods; (5) allocation of adequate budget to meet the above mentioned demands; (6) immediate implementation of maternity entitlements as per NFSA and (7) immediate passage of the Grievance Redress Bill. The Finance Minister however showed little interest in these demands, let alone give any assurances of action on them.

Meeting with Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development

A delegation met with Amarjeet Sinha, Secretary Rural Development to discuss the Morcha’s demands regarding NREGA. The delegation expressed its shock at the Dr Nagesh Singh Committee which did not consider it necessary to link NREGA wages to the state minimum wages. Dr Singh said that the Committee took this decision as most states fix the rate of their minimum wages in a very arbitrary manner. He added that the difference between the NREGA wage and the state minimum wage is negligible in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh which follow a ‘scientific manner’ of determining the minimum wage rate. It was pointed out that this does not hold true for at least Bihar where the state minimum wage is Rs 232 but the NREGA wage is just Rs 168. While the delegation was of the opinion that as per Supreme Court judgements it is illegal to pay less than the minimum wages, the Secretary’s team did not think so. The officials dodged the delegation’s question of whether they considered the wage proposed by the Nagesh Singh Committee a living wage which allowed workers a life of dignity.

On the matter of the NREGA budget for 2017-18 the Secretary acknowledged that it is inadequate to meet even the labour budget approved by the Ministry earlier this year and shared that a demand for an additional Rs 17,000 crores has been made for this financial year.

The Secretary shared that the Ministry has taken note of a study by independent researchers which based on a sample of about 90 lakh wage payments made across ten states of India in 2016-17 found that only about 21 per cent of the wage payments are made within 15 days of doing work. Mr Sinha admitted that there are delays in transferring of NREGA wages by banks for which the workers are not compensated for and assured that the Ministry is looking into the matter.

The officials claimed to be unaware of the denial of work to many rural households due to the programming of the Management Information System (MIS) of NREGA in such a manner that demand for work is not accepted beyond 100 days, even if the household has not received its full entitlement.

The delegation also shared about other issues undermining the implementation of the employment guarantee act – denial of work to many rural households without toilets and other routine violations of NREGA entitlements, widespread disruptions caused due to Aadhaar-based payment of wages, absence of Muster Rolls and other important documents in local languages, top-down implementation of NREGA, disregard to plans prepared by the Gram Sabha, violations of workers’ entitlements due to the increasing dependence of the NREGA implementation on the MIS and the weak implementation NREGA’s transparency, accountability and grievance redress mechanisms including regular social audits as per the Audit of Scheme Rules 2011 and the Auditing Standards of Social Audit 2016.

For further information, please contact Ankita Aggarwal (9818603009, aggarwal.ankita[at]gmail.com) or Dipa Sinha (9650434777, dipasinha[at]gmail.com).

SEE RELATED DOCUMENTS:

India: MGNREGA Budgets Note by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (Sept 2017)
[hosted at sacw.net document archive]
India: Consolidation of NREGA Complaints by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (Sept 2017)
[hosted at sacw.net document archive]
India: Letter to Rural Devt Secretary (14 Sept 2017) - NREGA Sangharsh Morcha
[hosted at sacw.net document archive]
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