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Rural resistance

Print edition : Sep 26, 2008 T+T-

T.K. Rangarajan (centre), CPI(M) central committee member, and K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, with M. Kalaichelvan, the panchayat president who was injured in the police action at Rettanai in Villupuram district.-C. VENKATACHALAPATHY

Tamil Nadu: Workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in the State protest against reduced minimum wages.

THOUSANDS of unskilled workers employed in works undertaken by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) across Tamil Nadu are agitated over the erosion of a substantial part of their daily wages. Their apprehensions are based on what labour leaders call bureaucratic attempts to deprive the workers of the minimum wage of Rs.80 a day, on a par with the minimum wage fixed for agricultural workers in the State concerned, as suggested by the Centre in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. Using an option provided by the Act, the State government has fixed a minimum wage based on the rates fixed by the Public Works Department, but 60 per cent above the PWD rate. In order to quantify the work contributed by each worker, the government has introduced some unrealistic work norms, labour leaders opine.

In Villupuram, which is one of the six districts chosen for the implementation of the scheme, protest meetings, demonstrations and road blockades were organised at nine worksites within a span of 15 days in August. At Rettanai village in Tindivanam taluk, when the workers gathered at a site on August 16 to start the days work, local officials told them that they would be paid only Rs.40 and not Rs.70, which they got on August 14 for the same work. The workers were reportedly told that the wage had been fixed by the higher officials.

When the agitated workers approached the village panchayat president, M. Kalaichelvan, for clarification, he expressed surprise at the wage revision. Apparently, he was kept in the dark about the decision. (Under the Act, the panchayat chief has a pivotal role in the implementation of the NREGS.) When Kalaichelvan, along with the workers, met the local officials to discuss the matter, the police stormed the village and started beating the workers. When the panchayat president asked the police why the workers were being beaten for seeking a clarification, the policemen caned Kalaichelvan. His brother, a law student, was also beaten up. The police used teargas shells to disperse the crowd and resorted to firing, in which a boy was injured. A number of women and elderly men were among those injured in the police action.

Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi ordered an inquiry by the Revenue Divisional Officer into the incident. He also announced a compensation of Rs.50,000 to the injured boy. Leaders of political parties condemned the police action and demanded a judicial inquiry. N. Varadarajan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said in a statement that at a meeting of the State Employment Guarantee Council on August 8, P. Mohan, CPI(M) Member of Parliament, had referred to certain irregularities in the implementation of the scheme.

The officials assured him, in the presence of Minister for Rural Development and Local Administration M.K. Stalin that wages would not be fixed arbitrarily and that the minimum daily wage of Rs.80 would be ensured in all the districts. Varadarajan said this assurance was flouted when the daily wage of the Rettanai workers was reduced. He said the officials had also increased the workload by assigning to each 10-member group the quantum of work normally executed by a 17-member team.

Denying charges relating to the payment of wages, Stalin told mediapersons in Madurai a couple of days later that the government paid the beneficiaries more than the minimum wage stipulated by the Centre. He said the wages were paid according to the quantum of work done. If the Centres formula, on the basis of the PWD wages, was adopted, the daily wage would not be more than Rs.50, he pointed out. The workers agitation and the brutal police response have thus raised questions about the way the NREGS is being implemented by the State governments.

The scheme, described by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as the flagship programme of his government, is funded mostly by the Centre and implemented by the State governments. It guarantees 100 days of employment in a financial year to any rural household whose adult members are willing to do unskilled manual work and make a demand for it through registration and application. The significance of the scheme has to be seen in the backdrop of the acute agrarian crisis, which is considered to be an offshoot of the neoliberal economic policies pursued by successive governments at the Centre since the early 1990s.

According to National Sample Survey indicators for 2003, the number of rural landless people increased to 33 per cent in 2003 from 22 per cent in 1992. Besides, the rural unemployment rate for the male population shot up from 5.6 per cent in 1993-94 to 8 per cent in 2004-05 and for women it rose to 8.7 per cent from 5.6 per cent during the same period. This and the setback suffered by agriculture compelled the government, economists and political parties to find a solution to the crisis.

Following pressure from the Left parties and several constituents of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a scheme for gainful employment of the rural poor in order to provide at least partial relief to their sufferings was devised. Thus NREGA emerged as the most prioritised item on the UPA governments agenda when it was formed in 2004. The Act was operationalised in February 2006, putting in place the NREGS. In the first phase, the scheme was taken up in 200 districts in the country. The coverage was extended to 330 districts in the following year and to all rural districts in April 2008.

According to a status report for 2007-08 presented to Parliament, 3.37 crore households in 330 districts were provided employment for 141.62 crore person-days of work (which comes to an average of 42 days during the year). In 2006-07, 2.10 crore households were provided jobs for 90 crore person-days (43.06 days a year on an average). This performance of the NREGS, according to studies, is better than that of the earlier rural employment schemes such as the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, the Employment Assurance Scheme and the Sampoorna Rozgar Yojana.

The cost of the NREGS is shared between the Centre and the States in the ratio of 90:10. The Centre bears the entire cost of wages for unskilled manual workers and 75 per cent of the cost of materials and wages for skilled and semi-skilled workers. The administrative cost is shared by the Centre and the respective State governments.

Apart from guaranteeing a minimum of 100 days of work a year, the NREGS has other significant features. The panchayati raj institutions have a prime role in planning and executing the works undertaken and in arranging for a social audit of the schemes performance.

Another is the provision for payment of unemployment allowance to an eligible applicant if the (State) government fails to provide employment within a specific period. The State government is required to pay this allowance from its own funds.

A third one is that it has the potential to enhance peoples livelihoods on a sustainable basis by creating common permanent assets and protecting and improving existing public resources such as tanks, lakes and land. The schemes scope for developing rural infrastructure is also considered large. It also gives no room for middlemen and lays stress on manual labour to carry out the works. Trade unionists hope the scheme will become a precursor to the right to employment.

The NREGS gained popularity soon and brought about significant improvement in the quality of life of worker-beneficiaries across the country. This is not to say that there were no complaints about its implementation. There were charges of violation of guidelines, flouting of rules and lack of transparency, among other things.

In fact, the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Performance Audit of Implementation of NREGA, 2005), submitted in December 2006, a few months after the implementation of the scheme in the first phase, had some negative findings, mostly concerning diversion or misuse of funds. Economists pointed out that the main focus of the report was on the lack of administrative capacity to run the scheme in a decentralised manner as desired and the need to build this capacity quickly and effectively.

It has to be noted that the report made a specific mention of the shortage of administrative and technical staff in the implementation of the scheme during the first phase of implementation, only with a view to making positive efforts to improve the position while expanding the scheme to more districts (Frontline, February 15.)

The potential of the scheme to transform the socio-economic relations among the rural communities is huge and this is evident from the unprecedented public response the scheme has evoked.

In Tamil Nadu, the NREGS was launched on February 2, 2006, in Villupuram, Cuddalore, Dindigul, Nagapattinam, Sivaganga and Thiruvannamalai districts. It was extended the following year to Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Tirunelveli and Karur districts. In April 2008, in the third and final phase, all the rural districts, numbering 20, were brought under it.

The NREGS now covers 12,618 panchayats in the State. Under the scheme, 56,082 works have been undertaken, of which 11,480 have been completed. Nearly 21 lakh applicants have so far been given jobs and they have created 1,179 lakh person-days. Women account for 82 per cent of the beneficiaries, while Dalits and tribal people constitute 63 per cent.

But for the controversy over the wages, the scheme has, by and large, received wide acclaim, thanks to the huge response from the rural poor, particularly women. Even those who complain of irregularities do not question the need for the scheme or its impact on the lives of its beneficiaries.

According to K. Balakrishnan, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, the crux of the problem in respect of wage fixation and the quantification of the work of each individual in such a massive work is the absence of a foolproof mechanism. Such a mechanism is necessary, particularly because all the beneficiaries of the scheme are unskilled men and women, whose age ranges from 18 to 80, he told Frontline.

There should be transparency in work allocation as well as wage distribution. While making any modification in the wage rates or work norms there should be consultations at different levels, he said, and added that this was perhaps not done at Rettanai village. There can be no solution to the issue relating to wages at the cost of the spirit behind the Act, Balakrishnan averred.

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