Is implementation of NREGA (national rural employment guarantee legislation) being changed to such an extent that instead of helping workers in difficult times the scheme under this law may even becomes a source of exploiting them?
This and other disturbing questions were raised at a press conference organized in Delhi on March 3 by the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (a group which has been monitoring NREGA implementation carefully for quite some time and campaigning for its proper, improved implementation.
This press conference was part of a wider mobilization to demand significant improvements, as reflected in a protest dharna at Jantar Mantar, Delhi. While several national level injustices have been highlighted in the course of this protest, a special focus has been on extreme injustices suffered by NREGA workers in W.Bengal.
As the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha has pointed out, most NREGA workers in W.Bengal have not been paid their wages for over one year. According to the Morcha, the central government has withheld the release of over INR 7500 crore worth of NREGA funds out of which pending wages amounting to INR 2762 crore have not been paid to nearly 3.4 crore registered workers from W.Bengal for work already completed by them (one crore=10 million). In addition there was a near shutdown of NREGA work in the state for financial year 2022-23.
According to news reports, the central authorities held back funds after discovering anomalies in the implementation of NREGA in this state. However, as was repeatedly emphasized in the press conference and at the protest dharna, when corruption is discovered, the response should be to punish the corrupt persons concerned and not to victimize the innocent workers.
A wider, national level aspect of implementation which came in for repeated criticism in the press conference and at the dharna relates to the mandatory imposition of a centralized digital attendance system (NNMS) and Aadhaar based payments that has “caused havoc”. Many workers cannot be paid in time due to technical problems related to the NNMS App.
Brinda Karat, former Rajya Sabha member and CPM leader said that the big reduction in NREGA budget this year, the huge numbers of workers who demand work but are denied work, extremely low average wages of around INR 218 per day as well as the fact of nearly 20 states being in deficit due to spending being higher than allocation received from the central government have led to serious questions regarding the future of NREGA. The union government has been very unfavorable towards NREGA as well as other pro-poor laws like the Forest Rights Act, Karat said.
Anjali Bhardwaj, a senior social activist, stated that most of the weaker sections have continued to suffer from a worsening livelihood situation and inflation in the post-pandemic phase and therefore the weakening of important pro-poor schemes like rural employment guarantee is a cause for very serious concern. She called for genuine, comprehensive anti-corruption steps, while avoiding the imposition of more difficulties on the poor in the name of checking irregularities, as has been seen in the context of NREGA.
Rajiv Dimri, senior trade union leader (AICCTU), said that while the assault on NREGA is very regrettable, there is also a much wider assault on the entire working class and the central trade unions are preparing to resist this in various ways.
Several NREGA workers from W.Bengal stated how they have been denied wages after toiling for up to 90 days at NREGA sites , and this as well as loss of work opportunities has led to hunger and starvation in their households.
The various speakers extended their support to the demands raised by the ongoing protest movement and dharna. These demands include—
- Immediate payment of the pending wages by the central government,
- immediate release of the withheld funds by the central government,
- Establishment of a revolving fund of INR 1000 crore by the state government for timely payment of NREGA wages,
- Checking irregularities in implementation of NREGA ad action against all those who are complicit in these.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Man over Machine and Planet in Peril.