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New NREGA Wage Rates Akin to "Slavery", say Workers' Organisations

Ravi Kaushal |
The organisations say the new rates remain lower than minimum wages in most states.
New NREGA Wage Rates Akin to "Slavery", say Workers' Organisations

Image Courtesy: Flickr

Delhi: Workers’ organisations working with NREGA labourers have slammed the increase in wage rates announced by the Union Ministry of Rural Development for the scheme. As per new rates, a worker would get Rs 221 per day in Chhattisgarh, which is the lowest, and Rs 357 in Haryana, the highest. The organisations maintained that the rates remain lower than minimum wages in most states and cannot fulfil a family’s nutritional requirements.

Talking to NewsClick, Vikram Singh, Joint Secretary of All India Agriculture Workers Union, said the Ministry’s announcement overlooks the provision that the rates for the MGNREGA scheme should be more than agricultural workers’ rate. He said that the scheme has already seen a deficit in funding from the Centre in the upcoming financial year as it allocated Rs 60,000 crore, much less than expected. He pointed out that state governments are complaining that they do not have funds to allocate new work under MGNREGA. Additionally, the Centre has asked for linking Aadhaar with bank accounts for the payment of wages. 

“There is a lobby in the government that abhors the scheme. So, this declaration of rates shows the perspective of this government towards the crisis in rural India. It shows that they have failed to understand the state of unemployment in the country. It is indeed ironic that the poor men and women will figure in the government’s posters but not its policies,” Singh said.

Ashish Ranjan from NREGA Sangharsh Morcha told NewsClick that the current wages are already lower than minimum wages in several states, and the Centre did not reveal its formula for determining these wage rates. “It is not following the recommendations of the Mahendra Dev Committee, which mandated that the NREGA wage rates should be higher than minimum wages. I have been working with NREGA workers in Bihar, and I can tell you that it is not just below the minimum wage for agriculture work but market rates too. In harvesting season, the rates are poised to increase. We are witnessing that women are joining the workforce in large numbers because their wage rate is still hanging over Rs 200 per day, but men are being pushed out of the distressed sector,” he said.

Ranjan added that during the initial years of the scheme’s implementation, the wages under NREGA drove the wages in other sectors. “Industry lobbyists blamed the scheme for the deficit of workers in the cities. But the distress is such that people willing to work near their homes are being pushed out due to low wages,” he said.

Ranjan does not agree with the logic that it is a demand-driven scheme, and people are not really enthusiastic about it. He said that the experience from Bihar suggests that if the government maintains a proper supply of funds, people will get work. “We are seeing a repetition of the Covid era in Bihar in the sense that the state touched the expenditure level of that period when everybody was rushing to villages during the pandemic, and the scheme saved millions of lives by providing work,” he said.

When asked if the rights of panchayats have been curtailed in determining the work to be done, he said, “The limitations are in different forms in a sense that MIS will not allow the opening of 20 works at any given time. Similarly, there is pressure to prioritise the pet schemes of state governments.”

Ashish Mittal, General Secretary, All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, said that the rise in wage rates does not even compensate for the increase in the cost of fulfilling basic necessities and has been executed in a routine bureaucratic manner without the application of mind. He said, “MGNREGA work has been conceived as an employment and livelihood security. Its implementation and wages should have been strongest in the states most affected by unemployment and migration. But wages in such states are the lowest in the list -- Chattisgarh at Rs 221, Madhya Pradesh Rs 221, Bihar Rs 228, Jharkhand Rs 228, Uttar Pradesh Rs 230, Uttarakhand Rs 230, West Bengal Rs 237, Odisha Rs 237, as compared to Haryana where it is at Rs 357 per day.”

He said that the Centre had slashed the MnGNREGA budget by 18% from Rs 73,000 crore in the current fiscal to Rs 60,000 crore for FY 24. It is 33% lower than the revised budget of Rs 89,000 crore for FY 23. “Government’s economic survey justified the reduction stating that MGNREGA is being implemented as a demand-based service and out of 6.49 crore households who demanded jobs as of January 24, 2023, 6.48 crore were offered work. This figure camouflages the figure of 14.98 active MGNREGA workers who require work, and officials almost never record applications for work. Last year more than 7.5 crore families worked under MGNREGA," Mittal said, speaking to NewsClick.

He added, "The MGNREGA allocation has fallen from 2.4% of the total budget expenditure in FY 2016 to 2.1% in FY 2023 and has now been brought down to 1.3% in FY 2024. If all 15 crore persons are given 100 days of work every year as per the Act, this would be a genuine relief to the village poor. But then required budgetary allocation for MGNREGA wages will be in the range of Rs 3.5 lakh crores.”

Nikhil De, Founding Member, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, told NewsClick that the increase in wage rates overlooks the constitutional obligations of providing a living wage. He said, “If the state is not providing minimum wages, how can we expect others to provide it? We often hear about three wages -- minimum wage, living wage and survival wage. The current wages are lower than the survival wage, which is not enough to fulfil a family's nutritional requirements. It is akin to slavery.”

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