The work provided under India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been a very important support for the poorest rural households, particularly women, when implemented properly and can also contribute a lot to sustainable development by promoting important work like water conservation. Unfortunately the proper functioning of NREGA has been increasingly hindered and disrupted due to big budget cuts and arbitrarily introduced attendance and payments systems (NNMS and ABPS). Several organizations which protect the interests of workers and weaker sections from various parts of country, including NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, have been protesting against this by organizing a dharna (protest sit-in) at Jantar Mantar, Delhi. Workers who have suffered due to increasingly problematic implementation of NREGA have been gathering here from various parts of the country like Bihar, Jharkhand, W.Bengal, Chattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh to voice their grievances and narrate the injustices suffered by them.
On 13 April this dharna observed the completion of 50 days of its peaceful and democratic protest. It was sad to see that while hope had emerged earlier in the form of certain assurances by the concerned officials, this time the statement issued by the protesters on April 13 has spoken more of a “stony silence” on the part of the authorities, indicating that the earlier assurances did not have an encouraging follow-up. The protesters have also spoken of increasing difficulties in organizing a completely peaceful dharna in the capital.
If this is not good news for workers, this is not good news for democracy either. An important strength of democracy is to resolve problems and take early corrective actions by responding to the voices of people. But here is a case where each and every problem has been documented with a lot of evidence which has been presented to the authorities and yet corrective actions had not been taken till the 50th day of the protest.
Our political leaders often call upon the youth to contribute to national tasks. Here are many young activists, including several highly educated ones, who have been toiling selflessly for weeks to help the weaker sections, working in completely democratic ways and collecting a mass of data and evidence to draw attention to very genuine and serious problems, but the political leaders are not listening to these nation-building young activists.
Sulochana Devi from Kangra district (Himachal Pradesh) recently worked for 7 days at a NREGA work site, but due to faulty NNMS attendance her work was recorded for only two days. Instead of being paid at the rate of INR 212 she was paid INR 80. Dharamsai from Sarguja ( Chattisgarh) has not been paid for four weeks of work due to Aadhar card not being linked to job card . Mannu Ram of same district toiled for 10 days in March at a NREGA site, but due to faulty NNMS App was listed for payment for only 2 days and has so far received payment for only 1 day.
Lalitaben Badla of Panchmahal district has testified about 8 women of her village whose wage payment got misdirected under ABPS, and they went around for months chasing the missing wage, spending almost as much as they had lost initially in the process of misdirected wage payment, and at the end of it all were able to get only a partial part of what they had lost. In fact there have even been cases of workers losing previous savings due to the new system of wage payment.
Rejection, misdirection and diversion are the three problems encountered by the ABPS payment system, which is being made mandatory despite clear evidence that equally effective and speedy payments are possible by ordinary bank accounts transfer system being allowed earlier. There is increasing evidence also that budget inadequacy contributes to delays in wage payments; in fact a review of 1.8 million transactions revealed that there were delays beyond the stipulated 15 days in the case of 44% of these wage transactions.
Hence the demands of this movement to not insist on making ABPS mandatory and to allow previously prevalent direct bank account payments, take back the NNMS App attendance system, ensure adequate budgeting and quickly pay all pending wages are eminently reasonable and should be accepted without further delay. This has most urgency in the context of W. Bengal where according to this movement wage payments worth INR 2,762 crore ( one crore=10 million) have been pending for a long time.
To ensure that these demands are met in the very near future, the struggle of NREGA workers deserves wider support. This is an important part of the wider struggle of the working class as there are many other serious issues of injustice confronting the working class. Eminent economist Jean Dreze has recently shown, by deflating Reserve Bank and Labor Bureau data with data on price rise, that rural real wages have stagnated and may even have suffered some decline, depending on the price data used, in recent times.
My own extensive interviews with construction and domestic workers in Delhi earlier this year revealed that after considering the impact of inflationary trends and higher days of unemployment, their overall earnings have declined in recent times. A review of actual expenditure data for those government departments which deal with weaker sections revealed that for many schemes the actual spending has lagged far behind original budget allocations. Hence the NREGA struggle should also be seen as a part of the wider ongoing struggles for justice to working classes and to all weaker sections of society.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine, Planet in Peril and A Day in 2071.