February 21, 2021

MNREGA Being Turned into ‘A Guaranteed Uncertainty’

S Punyavathi

“THESE schemes are making the labourers lazier. Hence, they don’t heed anyone. They are just impossible”.

These are the regular comments heard with respect to the labourers in our day-to-day lives. Going another step ahead are some who question the very scheme and strongly advocate for the removal of these schemes. These remarks are very often heard about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA). The rural rich also express their disapproval of the scheme, while others feel it will help the rural poor.

The MNREGA came into existence as a result of a series of struggles. Thousands of rallies, conventions and meetings were held before the law was passed demanding the government to either provide employment, or to feed the poor. The early solution to this issue was arrived at by Comrade Jyoti Basu’s government in West Bengal soon after it assumed charge after the emergency. It implemented the unemployment allowance payment within its limited resources. In the rural areas, it distributed one kilo of rice and one rupee per day to every family for all the days when there was no work. This move, amongst others, brought laurels to the Left Front government and helped expansion in the rural areas. The present MNREGA saw light after the long drawn struggles. The scheme should not be perceived as the brainchild of the UPA.

The implementation and the effects of the scheme on the benefactors needs to be looked at. Is the government wasting its funds on the labourers, or are the labourers being exploited, is the question!

The workers are forced to toil during the hot summers, to remove silt from the water bodies, which in itself is a strenuous job, due to non-availability of any other work.  While the rest of the people relax under ACs, coolers or at least fans, these workers carry their tools and water and sweat out through the day. Women workers also walk long distances to dig out the silt from the lakes and canals, which is often portrayed in the media on a very positive note.

The primary issue for the workers is the payment of wages, which is inadequate and disproportionate to the work done. For example, in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the working hours decided by the governments are eight hours for ploughing, and for other agricultural work it is five hours per day. The wages per day in both the states are fixed at a meagre Rs 237. However difficult the work is, the workers have no option but to accept the work, lest they lose their livelihood. The ruling classes had never consulted the workers while deciding the high working hours and low wages. This is the democracy we live in!

The Rs 237 wage decided is abysmally low compared to the wage paid to unskilled workers as per the district collector’s notification. For example, the Visakhapatnam district collector has notified Rs 439 per day for unskilled labour.

While paying meagre wages to the MNREGA workers, the government boasts of improving the water resources and other social resources. But this has been possible by the sheer hard work put in by the workers in the check dams, canals, de weeding the agricultural lands, afforestation, etc.

This work makes an immense contribution to agriculture. Though the work is very difficult and exhausting, the government prescribes them a paltry Rs 237. In reality, the workers are denied even this.  Very faulty calculations are made and the workers are misled. A case study of a worker in Anantapur district of AP makes it evident: the worker was issued a pay slip showing number of days worked as six and number of working days as two and was paid Rs 428. When asked, they were told that the wage is calculated on the basis of the extent of work, i.e., Rs 237 for every cubic metre. It means that the government decides that desilting or ploughing of one cubic metre requires two days and the wage is paid accordingly, irrespective of the actual number of days worked.   But practically, the worker had worked for six days, and if the Sunday is included, the payment should have been made for 7 days at Rs 237 per day. But the worker was paid a paltry Rs 428, i.e., Rs 61.14 per day. Another worker in Prakasam district of AP was paid Rs 6918 for 45 days work, i.e., Rs 153.73 per day. This also is a blatant deceit!

While the non-payment of prescribed wages and faulty calculation is one aspect, another dimension is the exploitation. The workers are forced to dig extra depths and extents to satisfy the supervisors and the social audit teams.

The third aspect is that the number of days of work allocation is far less than the prescribed number of days. In AP, there are 94 lakh job cards, while only 4.11 lakh families get 100 days work, i.e., only 4.36 per cent. In Telangana also only 4 per cent of the job card holders get 100 days work. As per the law, card holders who are denied work have to be paid unemployment allowance. But the governments are not bothered.

Another striking feature of the MNREGA is that these workers are mostly from the dalit and girijan communities. 40 per cent of the workers belong to the rural dalit and girijan communities while 59 per cent are rural women.  It is evident that the tall claims of social justice, upliftment of downtrodden, emancipation of women, development of rural poor are just hypocritic. These are the sections of the society that are most oppressed and exploited.

The deliberate faulty calculation of wages, number of working days, non-payment of unemployment allowance when there is no work, is only to discourage workers and is in the direction to wind up the scheme.

A strong rural workers’ movement alone can mete out justice to these workers and ensure implementation of the scheme in the right earnest.