Alleging that the NDA government is on its way to gradually doing away with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), many civil society groups and labour organisations have appealed to opposition parties to support their demands for an increase in budgetary allocation for the scheme.
In a briefing held for the Members of Parliament on March 14 at the Deputy Speakers Hall, Constitution Club, New Delhi, the civil society members urged them to raise the issues of crores of labourers and workers who have “not been paid since December 2021”.
They highlighted the issue of inadequate funding, adverse changes in the attendance system as well as the method of payment. The broad aim of the briefing was to help MPs defend peoples’ right to work under the MGNREGA.
MPs of the opposition parties who attended the event were Sanjay Singh (Aam Aadmi Party), Digvijaya Singh, Uttam Kumar Reddy and Kumar Ketkar (Congress Party), S. Senthilkumar (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Jawhar Sircar (All India Trinamool Congress Party), among others.
They deliberated upon ways to force the government to enhance budgetary allocation and reverse the recent amendments in the mode of payment which has proved “disastrous” to the interest of workers.
Beginning the presentation, Jean Drèze, visiting Professor at Ranchi University, alleged that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has unleashed an unprecedented three-pronged attack on MGNREGA — inadequate funding, the introduction of an Aadhar-based Payment System (ABPS) and the inception of a real-time attendance system through the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app.
Prof Dreze claimed that this year’s funding is only Rs 60,000 crore, which is the lowest allocation ever in the history of the programme.
“Funds run out and projects come to a halt. The wages get delayed and are accumulated for months,” Prof Dreze said, adding that the introduction of digital attendance has deprived the workers of their wages due to technical and network glitches.
“Aadhar-based Payment is so complicated system that even many bankers fail to understand its functionality and the majority of workers cannot be paid through this system. It is illegal and criminal not to pay wages to workers for the work that they have done,” he added.
Other speakers who expressed their concerns and shared the problems of workers were Nikhil Dey (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Rajasthan), James Herenj (NREGA Watch, Jharkhand), Ashish Ranjan (Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Bihar), Richa Singh (Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, UP), Anuradha Talwar (Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samiti, West Bengal) and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, among others.
They presented testimonies to show that the Aadhar-based Payment and Mobile Monitoring Software App are “depriving a large number of workers of payment” of wages to them. They said that according to the data from the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), only 43 per cent of NREGA workers are eligible for ABPS.
“The current changes in MGNREGA impact 15 crore workers across the country which is a huge number. We want a political response from opposition parties to support people on the ground to give them their rights under the law,” Dey said.
Civil society members requested MPs to issue a Privilege Notice in Parliament to demand an explanation from the Rural Development Minister on his remarks to the media suggesting that the state government should also contribute to the wage liability under the programme, contrary to the provisions of MGNREGA.
Assuring the civil society members of full support, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said that the workers’ plight is genuine. “The intent of this government is always opposed to the ideals of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005. They are cutting down all social service budgets. I am all for the support which is expected from us,” he said.
AAP MP Sanjay Singh said the BJP government admitted in Parliament while responding to his questions that the dues of states under MGNREGA run over Rs 3,000 crore.
“It is very surprising to know that out of guaranteed 100 days of work, the labourers are getting only 34 days of work due to lack of adequate funds. We will raise the issue in Parliament but at the same time we should also think about starting a people’s movement,” he suggested.
Other MPs also pledged support and said they will do their level best to help highlight the plights of the workers.
MGNREGA Sangharsh Morcha is a coalition of organisations working with rural labourers and workers around the country. It is in the midst of a 100-day dharna at Jantar Mantar, to protest against “recent attacks” on the scheme.