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    Have MGNREGA Workers Become Bonded Labourers?

    GovernanceAccountabilityHave MGNREGA Workers Become Bonded Labourers?
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    Have MGNREGA Workers Become Bonded Labourers?

    Millions of workers remain unpaid for their work for several months. Despite over Rs. 21,000 crores of pending wages, the allocation under MGNREGA is only Rs. 73,000 crores. In 2020-21 the spending under the schemes was over 1.1 lakh crore.

    Are MGNREGA workers paid for their work?

    The answer to this question seems to be in the negative – millions of workers have not been paid for their work for several months.

    The right to food campaign says that this has led to a situation of bonded labour under a government programme. Activists say that this is due to the existence of large scale, systematic corruption within MGNREGA in states like West Bengal.

    “Both, the union government and the state government have not been able to resolve the issues related to the release of payments which (have) led to a severe brunt on workers,” the right to food campaign says. “Around Rs. 2,700 crores of wages are pending since December 2021 alone in West Bengal.”

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    While it provides employment and helps create rural assets, MGNREGA has been short-shifted by this budget. Despite over Rs. 21,000 crores of pending wages, the allocation under MGNREGA is only Rs. 73,000 crores. In 2020-21 the spending under the schemes was over Rs. 1.1 lakh crore.

    “The negative impact of the economic crisis that began even before the pandemic led to disruption has fallen disproportionately on those at the bottom of the pyramid,” the campaign has said in a press release.

    “Multiple reports and surveys capture the intense distress among the poor and marginalised sections of society exacerbated due to the pandemic and ensuing restrictions and further slowdown of the economy,” the release reads. “In this context, spending on social protection schemes such as the MGNREGA became especially important to improve rural distress.”

    Workers protest non-payments

    Wages worth Rs. 4,790 crores are pending from the union government as 2 September 2022. An analysis of over 18 lakh invoices for the first half of FY 2021-22 showed that the union government had processed only 29 per cent of the fund transfer orders within the mandated seven-day period.

    Besides, wages of NREGA workers have stagnated in real terms since 2009, the right to food campaign says. The average increase in NREGA wage rate across the country is 4.25 per cent, as opposed to government employees and pensioners getting a dearness allowance of 31 per cent.

    A negative net balance implies that there are pending wage and material payments to be made, along with arrears to be cleared, from current and previous financial years.

    Saying that it is the centre’s responsibility to disburse these funds in a timely and regular manner, the right to food campaign says that over Rs. 4100 crores is the net balance while 16 states and union territories have a negative net balance.

    “By now there is incontrovertible evidence that inadequate funding leads to massive delays in wage payments. Even the ministry of finance has acknowledged this,” The food campaigners say.

    Around 600 NREGA workers and their supporters from 14 states had gathered at Jantar Mantar early last month under the banner of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha to raise these issues and to demand the right to life with dignity.

    “We demand a revival of participatory anti-corruption methods, full support for social audits, abandonment of counter-productive technical fixes, and an end to the contractor raj where it prevails,” the campaigners say.

    Food campaigners’ demands

    Campaigners are demanding a guarantee of payment within 15 days for all NREGA workers and immediately clearing all pending wages, including pending FTOs. The campaigners say that automatic compensation for delays in wage payments, along with raising the compensation norm to 0.5 per cent (of the amount due) per day should be paid.

    Besides this, campaigners are demanding an increase in NREGA wages and ensuring that wages are no less than state minimum wages in any state.

    Stopping app-based two-times-a-day attendance system is important, the campaigners say. As per law, either the time rate system of payments the piece rate system must be followed. But both systems cannot be forced on workers (workers finish the work output for the day and go home).

    The right to food campaign says that an adequate budget allocation and release will ensure that employment can be provided on demand at enhanced wages, and has urged the governments at the centre and the states to resolve issues between them without hurting the workers’ right to work or their wages.

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