Modi govt out to throttle MGNREGA, lifeline for millions of poor rural workers

Two-thirds of budget provisions for scheme this year, much lower than earlier, stand exhausted. Modi govt is withholding release of funds to states by citing fallacious grounds such as ‘corruption’

Representative Photo (Getty images)
Representative Photo (Getty images)

Dr Gyan Pathak

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, popularly known as MGNREGA scheme, is being systematically sabotaged. It is being financially throttled by the Centre in many ways – reduction of budgetary provisions, delays in release of funds and a resort to political expediency by accusing states of corruption while taking little action against the actual culprits who are violating fundamental rights to life, liberty and equality before the law apart from violating the statutory provisions of MGNREGA.

National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005 – renamed after Mahatma Gandhi in 2009 – which was enacted by the Congress-led UPA government seems to have fallen victim to PM Narendra Modi’s desire to leave no stone unturned to achieve his dream of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” (literally an India free of Congress).

His government’s hostility towards the scheme has gone beyond all reasonable limits, causing immense misery to millions of poor rural workers depending on it for making a livelihood.

Since NREGA 2005 guaranteed work to all rural workers, it has always been demand-driven. Without discouraging the demand, the government could not have sabotaged it. Perhaps precisely for this reason, the working atmosphere was first vitiated through numerous ways so that poor workers do not approach the concerned officials for work. Payments have been kept low, being even below minimum wages, and the process of getting work has been made difficult and cumbersome.

The workers were to be paid under the Act within 15 days of the due date for payment, but delays stretch for months, making their very survival difficult.

In the Swaraj Abhiyan case judgment (2016), the Supreme Court said that delay in payment and non-payment of minimum wages was a violation of Article 23 of the Constitution of India. As such, it observed, the status of workers who were forced to work under the scheme due to economic hardships, only to face delays in payment of wages, was that of forced labour.

Modi government’s failure to take the necessary action to rectify the situation, and the worsening situation now, six year later, indicates that it simply ignored the Supreme Court's verdict.

The govt’s failure to provide employment under the Act affects the right to life and liberty of rural workers and violates Article 21 of the Constitution, especially when work is not being made available nor the wages being paid on time.

Equality before law under Article 14 is also being violated in several ways, especially with respect to different working condition for officials and workers along with differential financial compensation. Officials are paid in time, with higher wages and dearness allowances linked to inflation.

It may be recalled that Modi government’s Union Budget 2022-23 let down millions of desperate rural poor workers by reducing the MGNREGA budget by 25 per cent to Rs 73,000 crore, which was even lower than the revised estimate of Rs 98,000 crore for 2021-22.

The Centre clearly went against the ‘demand-driven’ concept of the scheme. Even two years ago, the budget was Rs 110,000 crore.

The pending liability at the time of the budget was around Rs 1000 crore.

Out of the budgetary provision for the current financial year, two-third was already spent in the first four months. As such, we now have eight months ahead, with just one-third of the budget left to fund it.

Modi government is now resorting to the tactic of not releasing funds to the states allegedly on grounds of corruption, but how is the Centre unable to curb such a situation with respect to a central fund? And why must the poor rural workforce suffer even if it this is true?

There are many more such questions that need to be answered, especially when states are demanding more MGNREGA funds for rural job creation even as they bear the brunt of protests over the last one year by MGNREGA workers demanding more work opportunities, increase in wages to at least match the minimum wages, timely payments, and assistance or compensation for work-related injuries. Restricting flow of funds to the states by citing ‘corruption’ seems to be just a lame excuse.

MNREGA 2005 provides for compensation for delay in payment of wages, but Modi govt evidently couldn't care less. Moreover, neither unemployment allowance is being paid to those who are not getting work under NREGA even if they demand word, nor is compensation being paid for delayed payment of wages to those who put in work.

MGNREGA workers’ protest in Delhi early this week will be followed by more protests. TMC of West Bengal will be protesting next week against Centre withholding MGNREGA funds. Bihar has demanded 10 crore additional man-days under the scheme for job creation. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab, Nagaland, and Manipur have already seen protests in the last one year which are now threatening to spread across the country.

(IPA Service)

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Published: 06 Aug 2022, 6:40 PM