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Thousands of NREGA workers across Jharkhand spilled to the streets today to express their anger at the continued denial of their entitlements. In over 30 blocks of the state, workers raised their voice against the abysmal wage rate, acute shortage of work, increasing delays in payment of wages, and violation of several other rights. They also demanded work and submitted grievances to the local officials. It is 13 years since the NREGA was enacted in the parliament, however the right to work has become a mockery in today’s time.

Workers discussed the extreme hardship faced by them because of not getting work and timely wages. In a public meeting organized in Chandwa, workers complained that they had submitted applications for job cards in November 2018 but are yet to be issued their cards. NREGA workers of Jama block of Dumka district said that gram panchayat functionaries often refuse to accept their work demand applications, citing shortage of work as an excuse.

At a public meeting in Mahuadanr, Latehar, a worker commented that the widespread violation of workers’ rights is taking place because of an environment of impunity; Gram Rozgar Sevaks and Block Programme Officers routinely deny work to labourers without facing any consequences. She added that this culture will only end if the government recovers unemployment allowance amounts from the functionaries who fail to ensure work to workers.

Given the lack of adequate alternatives for employment, workers across Jharkhand demanded that the number of days of guaranteed work under NREGA be increased to at least 150 a year.

In a dharna of 500 workers in Basia block of Gumla, worker after worker lamented about not getting their wages on time. Several workers were denied their wages as their job cards were deleted by the local administration. Many are yet to be paid as wages were rejected by the online payment system of NREGA. When Taramani Sahu, co-convenor of Jharkhand NREGA Watch, while addressing the gathering, mentioned issues of delays in wage payments and rejected payments, local officials left the programme mid-way. She added that in case of delays in payment, workers are entitled to a compensation amount of 0.05 per cent of the unpaid wages each day of delay. However, most workers are unable to secure even this measly amount. She added that this is an insult to injury and that each worker who does not receive wages within 15 days be paid a compensation of Rs 2,500 (as per the Payment of Wages Act).

Nanpatiya Devi told a gathering of workers in Meral Garhwa that she is yet to be paid for the 14 days of work that she did in 2015-16. She also added that wages of around 32 workers of her village are still pending.

Workers expressed anger at the extremely low NREGA wage rate. The wage rate was not increased by even a rupee this year and is Rs. 71 less than the state’s minimum wage rate. Afsana of NREGA Sahayata Kendra of Mahuadanr commented that government salaries are revised regularly based on one-after-one recommendation of pay commissions, but the same rules do not apply to workers. Citing the need for higher wages to cope with shooting food prices and for a dignified life, workers demanded that they be paid according to the 7th pay commission’s recommendation of minimum amount of Rs. 18,000 per month.

Sakina Dhorajiwala, a researcher working in Jharkhand, raised concern over the reduction in NREGA budget from this year’s Rs. 61, 084 crores to Rs. 60,000 crores for 2019-20. Not only nominally, this also means a significant fall in real terms. At least Rs. 5000 crores are still required to meet the approved budget for this year. It clearly means that 2019-20 will start with massive pending liabilities and less employment opportunities for workers.

Hundreds of workers associated with Gram Swaraj Mazdoor Sangh of Manika block in Latehar took out a rally in protest against the violations of their rights. They voiced several grievances – siphoning off of wages by contractors, rejection of wage payments, hassles in withdrawing wages due to Aadhaar and banking issues such as freezing of accounts, eKYC etc. Shanti Devi, a worker, complained that workers’ rights are violated because of widespread corruption in the local administration.

Expressing concern at the very low levels of participation of the elderly, women and members of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) in NREGA, Jawahar Mehta of Vikas Sahyog Kendra, Chhattarpur, Palamu demanded that these groups be paid on a daily basis instead of quantum of work. Stressing on their socio-economic rights, he also demanded for comprehensive social security including maternity benefits, life insurance, health benefits, provident fund, gratuity and right to quality education for their children.

Addressing workers in Manika, James Herenj, Convenor of Jharkhand NREGA Watch said that NREGA can change the fortunes of a poor state like Jharkhand. But workers and farmers of the state are not able to claim their rights because of lack of political commitment. It is not just limited to NREGA but extends to food security, nutrition and health. Stressing on the importance of social security pensions and maternity entitlements, James demanded that the government increase the amount of pensions to at least Rs. 2500 per month and ensure payment of maternity entitlements of Rs. 6000 per child without conditionality (as mandated by the National Food Security Act).

Workers of several blocks submitted memorandums to the local administration with the above mentioned demands. NREGA Watch demands from all political parties that the rights of NREGA workers are reflected in their manifestos, ahead of the elections. It also expects parties to support workers’ struggles in the days to come.

For photographs of today’s events, see this link: https://photos.app.goo.gl/upQGNc97XUsmt5p18 . For more information contact James Herenj, convener, Jharkhand NREGA Watch (JNW) (94703 96732) or Taramani Sahu, co-convener, JNW (94307 42215) or write to us on jh.nrega.watch@gmail.com.

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