In 2015, one year after he assumed office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, calling the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) a “living memorial” to the Congress’ failures. To cheers from the treasury benches in the Lok Sabha, Modi said: “After 60 years in power, all that you were able to deliver for the poor is to dig ditches a few days every month. Main gaaje-baaje ke saath iss smarak ka dhol peeth tha rahoonga (I’ll keep playing the orchestra around this monument)…. My political instinct tells me that MGNREGA should not be discontinued….”
But those working in the rural development sector believe that instead of “playing the orchestra”, the Modi government has, in fact, weakened this demand-driven job scheme through inadequate funding, suppressed wage rates, undermining the Panchayati Raj institutions and social audit infrastructure, discouraging both workers and local officials of the NREGA, and most importantly, the recent changes made in the attendance and wage disbursement systems.
On March 24, the Delhi Police prevented students and activists from holding a public discussion on alleged budget cuts in MGNREGA in Delhi University, after permission from the varsity was revoked the previous day.
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Noted economist Jean Dreze and activist Richa Singh of Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan (SKMS) were scheduled to speak at the event. The police action followed a day after the ongoing protest sit-in was disrupted by police at Jantar Mantar despite prior permission.
Dreze said: “Just like a trishul (trident), this government is attacking MGNREGA in three ways.” First, with the introduction of a mandatory digital app to mark attendance. This, he said, had adversely impacted the workers due to digital illiteracy and connectivity issues. Second, by linking wage payment to Aadhaar from February onwards. “This has complicated the wage payment system,” said Dreze. Third, the stagnant wages under the MGNREGA.
Dreze asked: “Of what use is economic development when government expenditure on social security schemes is not increasing?” He pointed out that the budgets of several other social security schemes had also been slashed to reduce the Budget deficit.
To defend the people’s right to work, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a coalition of organisations working with rural labourers, and People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) recently held a discussion with opposition MPs, including Digvijaya Singh, Uttam Kumar Reddy and Kumar Ketkar (Congress), S. Senthilkumar (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Jawhar Sircar (Trinamool Congress) and Sanjay Singh (Aam Aadmi Party). The meeting discussed MGNREGA budget allocations and pending liabilities, delays in wage payments, and the State-wise status of key entitlements under the scheme.
Experts present at the meeting included Dreze, Nikhil Dey (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Rajasthan), James Herenj (NREGA Watch, Jharkhand), Ashish Ranjan (Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Bihar), Richa Singh (SKMS, Uttar Pradesh) and Anuradha Talwar (Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti, West Bengal).
Under the MGNREGA, which was passed in August 2005 by the UPA-I government, the government is legally bound to provide employment to one person of every family in rural areas for at least 100 days a year. There is also a provision to give unemployment allowance if the applicant does not get work within 15 days of applying.
“A growing number of complaints reveal that the Modi government has failed to provide even 50 days of employment to workers under the MGNREGA scheme. ”
But a growing number of complaints reveal that the government has failed to provide even 50 days of employment to workers under the scheme. At present, according to Central government data, there were 15,06,76,709 active workers across the country as of February. However, the total number of registered labourers is 29,72,36,647.
During the pandemic years (2020-21 and 2021-22), the scheme proved to be a safety net for the rural poor. The person-days of work had increased by 54 per cent and 44 per cent in the two years, according to a study by Azim Premji University (APU). It further revealed that NREGA contributed to village development and discouraged migration. Nearly nine out of every ten households recommended that each individual instead of each household should get 100 days of NREGA work annually, according to the study.
- Under the MGNREGA, the government is legally bound to provide employment to one person of every family in rural areas for at least 100 days a year.
- During the pandemic years, the scheme proved to be a safety net for the rural poor, contributed to village development and discouraged migration.
- But a growing number of complaints reveal that of late, the government has failed to provide even 50 days of employment to workers under the scheme.
- The economist Jean Dreze has pointed out that the recent introduction of the National Mobile Monitoring System digital app to mark attendance, the linking of wage payment to Aadhaar and the stagnant wages under the MGNREGA have all contributed to the weakening of this demand-driven job scheme.
The workers complained that since the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS), a digital attendance app, was made compulsory from January 1, their daily attendance did not get registered unless two location- and time-stamped photos were uploaded on the MGNREGA website twice a day.
They said the Union Ministry of Rural Development not only did not address these issues even after they were flagged but went ahead and rolled it out nationally. According to the findings of the PAEG and the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, over 1 lakh gram panchayats in the country do not have a single NMMS device in use.
The new system of attendance has compounded the problems of women workers in particular. Mohini Devi, a protester at Jantar Mantar, said: “Women whose names are not related to their husbands are facing hardships while identifying their names in the attendance system. More than one woman could have the same name.” She added: “Workers from far away places who reach the worksite late are automatically marked absent without any inquiry.”
Others complained that under the Aadhaar-Based Payment System (ABPS), MGNREGA workers whose bank accounts are not ABPS-compliant will not receive wage payments. Nikhil Dey said: “As per the Ministry’s own data, only 43 per cent of NREGA workers are eligible for ABPS.” Highlighting that these recent changes in the MGNREGA have adversely impacted 15 crore workers across the country, he said: “We want a political response from opposition parties to support people on the ground and give them their rights under the law.”
Dey also called out the Central government for extending the last date for Aadhaar-PAN linking but not for Aadhaar-based payment of wages. The NREGA Sangharsh Morcha demanded that the March 31 deadline for disbursement of funds under the scheme be scrapped and a flexible payment system be adopted for MGNREGA.
Describing the ABPS as “a recipe for disaster”, Dey said “the proportion of MGNREGA workers eligible for ABPS is still below 50 per cent” and pointed out that the process was cumbersome for many workers.
Dreze said the government had changed the MGNREGA implementation system frequently. He said: “Earlier, cash wages were provided to workers. Thereafter, payments were made through post offices. Later, electronic fund management system (EFMS) and national electronic fund management system (NEFMS) were introduced. A caste-based payment system was started two years ago. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were given separate payments. Now the government wants to introduce a face recognition system. When the government talks about improving the latest system, someone brings in a new system. It has been going on for the last 12 years.”
The NREGA Sangharsh Morcha has called out Union Minister Giriraj Singh for his recent claims in the Lok Sabha that the Ministry of Rural Development had not received any complaints concerning the NMMS. In a statement, the Morcha said it had sent several written complaints to the Ministry, besides reaching out through delegations and social media posts.
The statement said: “We have reached an unprecedented situation where many NREGA workers work without being paid because of technical problems related to NMMS or ABPS. This is grossly unjust, unacceptable and illegal.” The Morcha also demanded an opportunity to brief the Ministry on digital harassment and their consequences for NREGA workers.
Earlier in March, Minister of State for Rural Development Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti told the Rajya Sabha that States and Union Territories had been asked to ensure attendance of the workers through the NMMS. Training would be given to ensure a smooth transition to app-based attendance, she added.
Budget cuts, funds withheld
Social activists believe that the consequences of low allocation have resulted in high unmet demand. Nikhil Dey explained: “The budget allocation was reduced to just Rs.60,000 crore in 2023-24. This amounts to less than Rs.50,000 crore if we deduct wage arrears from the previous year. And it makes this year’s allocation the lowest as a proportion of GDP (0.2 per cent) in the history of the programme.”
The government has, however, underplayed such allegations. After the Budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed in an interview: “MGNREGA is a demand-based scheme. The budget allocation can possibly be increased on the basis of demand.” In 2021-2022, an amount of Rs.73,000 crore was allocated for MGNREGA but later the government spent Rs.98,468 crore.
Experts do not agree with the government’s line of thinking. They argue that instead of making the MGNREGA budget-based, the Central government should provide enough funds to the National Employment Fund under the MGNREGA to ensure that wage payments do not get delayed and arrears do not accumulate.
In fact, the growing number of complaints regarding long delays in wage payments mock the legal guarantee stipulated in the Act that payments must be credited to workers’ accounts within 15 days.
In addition, there are allegations of discrimination in the disbursement of MGNREGA funds to opposition-ruled States. Anuradha Talwar, who works with Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti, says that West Bengal is in a particularly dire situation, with the Central government (under section 27 of the Act) withholding funds since December 2021. Of the Rs.7,500 crore the Centre owes West Bengal, the labour wages amount to Rs.2,744 crore.
Many aggrieved workers from the State who have been denied wages since December 2022 and fresh NREGA jobs have filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission.
Asserting that the low allocation of jobs and high pending wages have led to high unmet demand and delays in wage payments, Nikhil Dey said that NMMS and ABPS had made it harder to get work and get paid. He demanded the immediate removal of the NMMS app; the reversal of the order dated January 30, 2023, requiring all NREGA payments to be made via ABPS; an increase in the NREGA budget; and time-bound payment of wages.
He said: “NREGA wages have stagnated, and are below the state’s minimum agricultural wage. These factors combine to discourage workers and strangle the programme.”
Right to employment
As per the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Article 21 in Olga Tellis and others vs Bombay Municipal Corporation and others, the “right to work” is seen as a fundamental right inalienable from the “right to life”.
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Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has filed a plea in the Supreme Court on the non-payment of wages under the MGNREGA scheme, underscored the demand for legislation on the right to employment. Bhushan said: “The law could be an extended version of the MGNREGA. Instead of 100 days, it should provide employment for 365 days to everyone. The law should also be extended to urban areas.”
“According to the findings of the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee and the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, over 1 lakh gram panchayats in the country do not have a single National Mobile Monitoring System device in use.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing 100-day protest at Jantar Mantar has drawn participants from across the country. Kamal Kumar, a resident of Ajmer district, Rajasthan, said: “The government has been paying the average wage at the rate of Rs.200 for the past 15 years now. How can an elderly landless worker without any additional source of income survive?”
Asserting that the MGNREGA came into existence after a prolonged people’s movement, Aadesh Kumar, of Soochna Aur Rozgar Abhiyan, said: “We will keep organising workers to fight for our rights.”