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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010

Cheating in Gandhi’s name.
Centre deceives labourers out of wages


Shortchanged The 200 labourers, who are staging a dharna in Jaipur, are among the 50 million feeling the pinch

Shortchanged The 200 labourers, who are staging a dharna in Jaipur, are among the 50 million feeling the pinch


AS A flock of pigeons peck at grains scattered on the perfectly manicured lawns of Jaipur’s famous Statue Circle, around 200 agitating labourers struggle to find water. One of them calls up the municipal office for the fifth time. “Please send us at least two tankers of water,” he pleads. Since 2 October, landless labourers from all over Rajasthan have been staging a dharna in the heart of the state’s capital demanding minimum wages for work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Even as the UPA government celebrates the fifth anniversary of its flagship programme, the decision to freeze the MGNREGA daily wages at Rs. 100 has pushed it into a legal and — possibly — a constitutional tangle.

For more than a year now, 10 states have not been paying MGNREGA employees their due as guaranteed under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. Under the Act, each state fixes a minimum wage, which is revised at regular intervals. For example, in Rajasthan the minimum wage is Rs. 135. Even as the states, which are the employers under the programme, violate one of the first laws formulated by independent India, they pass the blame on to the Centre, the financier. The Centre, they claim, has fixed the wage at Rs. 100 and they do not have the resources to fill the gap.

The mandarins at Krishi Bhavan in Delhi cite Section 6(1) of the Act, which overrides the Minimum Wages Act.

Even as the bureaucrats indulged in the blame game, a trade union filed a writ petition in the Andhra Pradesh High Court challenging the decision. On 3 July 2009, Justice G Rohini passed an interim order suspending the wage rate notification of Rs100. On 8 September, the suspension was extended till further notice.

The court order did push MGNREGA Director Satyendra Kumar Singh to acknowledge that the government is obliged to pay the minimum wage to workers, but passed the buck to the states. Two days after the order, he wrote to K Raju, principal secretary (rural development) of the Andhra Pradesh government saying the Centre will only pay the amount permissible under Section 6(1) of MGNREGA, i.e., Rs. 100. Subsequent letters from Raju to the rural development ministry spoke about the risk of contempt of court as the Centre refuses to act on the court order.

For more than a year, 10 states have not been paying workers their dues under the Minimum Wages Act

THERE IS another legal angle to this bureaucratic cobweb. When approached for an opinion by the rural development ministry, Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising said, “Where a person provides labour or service to another for remuneration that is less than the minimum wage, the labour or service provided clearly falls within the meaning of the words ‘forced labour’ and attracts the condemnation of Article 23.” She could not be clearer but the bureaucratic wordplay continues. The minutes of a meeting on wage revision held on 10 July 2009 reveal how bureaucrats have no idea about ground realities.

Countering social activists’ argument that Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee had promised “a real wage of Rs. 100” for MGNREGA employees in his Union Budget speech in July 2009, Arvind Mayaram, additional secretary and financial adviser in the rural development ministry, said, “The minister said that we are committed to providing a wage of Rs. 100... he didn’t say that we shall provide it.”

It is shocking that a senior bureaucrat, who recently got a 45 percent raise under the Sixth Central Pay Commission, would base his opinion on such petty wordplay.

Meanwhile, the matter has been raised at the National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi. NAC members have taken serious note of the issue and concluded that under no circumstances can the MGNREGA workers be underpaid. However, the big question remains: who is going to foot the extra bill? The NAC, the rural development ministry and the states are undecided as more than 50 million labourers continue to suffer.

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, Dated November 06, 2010



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