Rightful wages under MNREGA have been denied to 1.4 crore workers in Bengal. Is anybody listening?
“My political instincts tell me that MNREGA should not be discontinued because it is a living memorial to your (Congress) failures. After so many years in power, all you were able to deliver is for a poor man to dig ditches a few days a month.”
— Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha, February 2015.
The PM bad-mouthed previous governments on the floor of Parliament. But, now, even he has to acknowledge that MNREGA, with 26 crore workers on its rolls, is a key driver of alleviating poverty in rural India. In Parliament, the Union government was questioned on the reduction in the budget estimate of MNREGA from Rs 98,000 crore in FY 2022 to Rs 60,000 crore in 2023. The government answered that MNREGA is a demand-driven employment scheme and the ministry seeks additional funds only when it is required to meet the demand for work on the ground.
Is the Union Government suggesting there is a lack of demand for MNREGA in the country?
MNREGA as a safety net: The job market is facing a major crisis, with the unemployment rate hovering around 8 per cent. MNREGA has been pivotal in providing employment opportunities to rural households, especially landless labourers, minorities and women, working as a shield against a life of penury.
The Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers reveals that 40 per cent of Indian farmers do not consider farming to be their principal source of income and stated that they dislike farming as a profession. Farmers are more likely to transition from farming to rural non-farm (RNF) jobs to mitigate the risks associated with agriculture.
Decline in real wages: According to NSSO, RNF employment can be classified into manufacturing, construction, wholesale and retail trade, and other services. Studies reveal that it is the construction sector which is acting as one of the major drivers of RNF employment since 2011-12. The latest data from the Centre for Labour Research and Action reveals that the growth rate of real wages in the construction sector between 2014-15 and 2021-22 was less than 1 per cent per year (even negative in some years) which raises concerns about the type of employment generated within the RNF sector.
NSSO further defines the type of employment that the RNF generates under three broad categories such as self-employment, regular salaried employment and casual wage employment. In India there has been a decline in self-employment and a gradual shift towards casual wage employment which is non-agricultural wage labour driven by the construction sector. The transition from agricultural to non-agricultural employment aligns with the latest findings in the RBI’s Handbook of Statistics of Indian States. The gradual shift in employment from wage labour in the agricultural sector to non-agricultural wage labour in rural areas is explained by the significant decline in real agricultural wages.
Institutional barriers: A scheme such as MNREGA, which provides regular salaried employment to rural households, is a choice between starvation and work stability for landless people. Currently, problems relating to the number of workdays going down from 100 to 31 days, along with poor administrative rationing of jobs among job seekers, and delays in wage payments act as institutional barriers for the rural poor.
Decisions such as using the National Monitoring System App to monitor attendance and Aadhaar-based payment system (ABPS), when nearly 11 crore (40 per cent) workers do not possess Aadhaar-linked bank accounts, have further pushed the rural poor into extreme vulnerability. However, the Union government does not even acknowledge the problem associated with ABPS. In reply to a question in Parliament, the government stated that no workers have been denied wage payment due to ABPS and it is neither open to technical glitches nor prone to misuse.
The latest Periodic Labour Force Survey report states that agriculture continues to remain the largest employer of the rural workforce. This implies that the mobility of the workforce from the rural agrarian sector to the RNF sector has failed. Rural households often consider the RNF casual wage employment as a last resort for their survival. That is why it is essential to strengthen MGNREGA and end the perpetual cycle of casual wage employment and extreme poverty faced by workers.
Economic blockade of states: One of the key schemes which relies on Union-state synergy is MNREGA. States run by non-BJP governments have been penalised by the Union government, which creates an economic blockade.
In the 2021-22 fiscal, West Bengal topped the list of states in terms of the number of people employed under the scheme (over one crore) and in terms of person days generated (36 crore). However, funds to the state have been stopped by the Union government under extended imposition of Section 27 of MNREGA since December 2021. This, in spite of all compliances being met.
The Union government owes Bengal a whopping Rs 7,000 crore under MNREGA. Data tabled in Parliament reveals the drastic fall in employment since the embargo of funds; the number of person days generated has shrunk to three crore, one-twelfth of what it was. Unfairly stopping wages leads to victimisation of workers and may push them to the brink of starvation. The state government has been funding the scheme from its own budget for the rural poor. Persons with job cards have also been subsumed into work under state government schemes.
The Union government has also withheld over Rs 8,000 crore owed to Bengal under the PM Awas Yojana (Grameen); over one million people have been deprived of housing benefits.
After letters and countless reminders have failed, a contingent of MPs and other ministers from the state will be in Delhi on Gandhi Jayanti. A satyagraha at Raj Ghat and other demonstrations have been lined up. Rightful wages under MNREGA have been denied to 1.4 crore workers in Bengal. Is anybody listening?
[This article also appeared in The Indian Express | Friday, September 29, 2023]