Livelihood issues are haunting crores of young Indians as unemployment levels soar and work conditions deteriorate under the new labour codes. The harsh Covid lockdowns and the post Covid economic slowness has made the conditions of rural workers who took to migration particularly fragile. In the Covid years, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) work offered some support to rural workers as reflected in the work taken up during financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22 indicate. In these two years, the number of days of work done increased by 54% and 44% compared to the previous three years' average. While the Right to Work which is closely linked to Right to Life, is still far from being realised, the small relief through programmes like MGNREGA also have come under attack by the Union government. The programme has been ridiculed by Modi himself and relief to the poor and welfare responsibility of the state derisively called as ‘freebies’. While the pro-rich approach and the special favours to corporates like Adani continues to dominate the policies of the government, the attacks on programmes like MGNREGA have increased.
The attack has come in the following forms: Ridicule the programme, slash down the budget, change it from a demand-for-job driven programme to supply based programme, denying payment to workers for wage done by not releasing its share to the state, introducing technology to deny workers attendance and wage supposedly for cutting corruption even while it is clear that corruption is happening at the highest level and none of them are being punished. Thus by harassing workers and not paying them for work done and denying them the work when they seek it, the BJP government’s intention to kill the programme is clear.
The budgetary allocation of MGNREGA for 2023-24 has been slashed by 33 percent. Estimates by organisations working on the programmes had shown that atleast 2.72 lakh crore is required for 100 days of work in the current financial year. The government instead of offering the revised budget only provided Rs 60,000 crore. Considering the pending liabilities and registered job seeking household, this would mean a pitiable 10 days of work! The budget slash hence means denial of work to crores of workers despite demanding work, massive delays in wage payments and impoverishing the rural areas by reducing the rural assets created.
Instead of offering demand based work, technological intervention filters have been introduced. The National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) was introduced from January 1 of this year. This has made a simple process of taking attendance a complex task and due to technical glitches in the app, workers have lost upto 50% wages. The app requires geo- tagged photographs of the workers to be uploaded everyday twice- once in the morning when the worker comes to work and again in the evening when the day is over. Workers wait for hours just to get their photographs uploaded. When the app fails to upload the photo or mark real time attendance, the work done for the day does not get counted resulting in workers not getting paid. Much work under MNREGA is done in locations where internet connectivity is inaccessible and there are no proper guidelines to deal with technical glitches. Such a mandatory attendance system which is directly linked with the wages is undermining the proper functioning of the programme.
Further, the government has made Aadhaar- Based Payment System (ABPS) compulsory for payment from February 1, 2023. Compulsory linking of Aadhaar with welfare schemes has already proved to be disastrous. Numerous cases of biometric authentication failures resulting in denial of rations, payment or access to healthcare and education have been in the news. ABPS treats Aadhaar as a financial address. For this system to function, the worker’s job card and bank account must be seeded with Aadhaar and the account must be linked to the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) mapper. Seeding and mapping a bank account is not an easy process. It involves stringent KYC requirements, biometric authentication, and resolving possible inconsistencies between the Aadhaar database and the bank account. Any inconsistency in the entire process will basically result in no payment of wages to the workers.
Unions, organisations and individuals from across the country working on saving NREGA from the impending death, have been protesting the vicious attack on the legislation that was brought as relief to rural workers. On 13 February, the protest took the shape of a 100 day dharna.
The charter of demands include adequate funding, scrapping app based attendance, timely payment of wages, compensation for delays, increase in wage rate, delinking from Aadhar, social audits correcting the travel allowance and compensation for death and injury at work, eradicating corruption.
At the time of going to press, the dharna at Jantar Mantar crossed the 25 days mark. Organisations from Bengal and Jharkhand have already been on the dharna site. Solidarity has been extended on behalf of AICCTU, AIARLA, and CPIML. Comrade Dipankar Bhattacharya addressed the demonstrators on 20 March. Comrade Shweta Raj from AICCTU and Comrade Radhika and Sweta from AIARLA and Comrade Neeraj from RYA extended solidarity to the assembled demonstrators on 1 March and 19-20 March. Comrade Rajiv Dimri, National General Secretary of AICCTU addressed the press conference on 4th march.
In a briefing organized by Peoples' Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) and NREGA Sangharsh Morcha in Delhi’s Constitutional Club on March 14, CPIML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya said that under Modi regime, we are witnessing a drastic rise in both urban and rural unemployment and at the same time, employee guarantee schemes like MGNREGA are being systematically dismantled by slashing budget allocation. On the other hand, we see rich corporations are reaping benefits like tax reliefs, concessions and divestment of PSUs.
On the 25th day of the dharna, Comrade Rameshwar Prasad, ex-MP and Comrade Rajaram, senior leader of CPIML addressed the protest and supported it on behalf of CPIML. They stressed on correcting the wage inequities given in NREGA and increasing the wage rate to minimum wages. They demanded that wages must cover the expenses for a dignified living for 365 days. The need to work together for a central legislation to protect the migrant workers in both urban and rural work was also raised at the meeting. Comrade Rameshwar said that parties and non governmental organisations like those in NREGA Sangharsh Morcha must work together to uphold the rights of the workers in the face of this attack.