Govt of India committee on NREGA is perpetuating violation of the Minimum Wages Act

MGNREGA

NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’s reaction to the main recommendation of the Nagesh Singh Committee on NREGA wage revision:

At a meeting with Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development and other officials from the Ministry, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha has strongly objected to the recommendations of the Nagesh Singh (Additional Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development) Committee on the question of minimum wages and indexing to inflation in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The Secretary defended the recommendations of the committee on the grounds that NREGA wages can be less than the State Minimum wage due to Section 6(1) of the employment guarantee act according to which “notwithstanding anything contained in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Central Government may, by notification, specify the wage rate for the purpose of this Act”. He promised to send the report to the Morcha, so that it could properly respond.

Unfortunately, despite repeated requests, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha has not received the report. The Morcha is therefore issuing this statement on the truncated draft report that it has been able to obtain.

The Morcha strongly condemns the view of the Committee that it finds “no compelling argument for convergence of minimum wages for agricultural labour and wages notified for NREGA workers”. In doing so, the Committee is perpetuating the violation of the Minimum Wages Act 1948 which started when the Central Government delinked NREGA from minimum wages in 2009 by “activating” Section 6(1) of the employment guarantee act. It must be noted that the Constitutional Courts have repeatedly stated that the Minimum Wages Act cannot be violated under any circumstances, and has held that non-payment of minimum wages is tantamount to forced labour and a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers. By ignoring both the recommendations of the Central Employment Guarantee Council’s (CEGC’s) ‘Working Group on Wages’ and the Mahendra Dev Committee on NREGA Wage Rage Indexation, the present recommendations reveal that the sole objective of the Nagesh Singh committee is to deny NREGA workers their inalienable right to a minimum wage.

The Committee cites four unjust arguments for supporting its view. The most prominent is “the fact that States do not follow a uniform policy of wage revision for minimum agricultural wage”. This opinion of the Committee disregards principles of federalism and second guesses the framework of the Minimum Wages Act which gives states the prerogative to determine their minimum wages, as per the framework laid down in the law. Furthermore, it deliberately confuses recommendations of the Minimum Wage Advisory Board for the revision of minimum wages, and automatic indexation, both of which are separate and central requirements under the law.

The requirement of agricultural workers to work for eight hours a day while NREGA workers work seven hours a day is the second justification given for not paying the minimum agricultural wage in NREGA. This too is an unjustified  rationale for altogether delinking NREGA from minimum agricultural wages.  NREGA workers are paid as per output of piece rate norms set by the state governments. In most states the average wage paid to workers is far below even the NREGA wage, and therefore it is clear that possibly unreasonable output norms are being strictly enforced. Hence any resolution of quantum of work and output cannot merely be settled by examining hours of work but, by undertaking scientific time and motion studies and proper job evaluation. Both work study and job evaluation have been long standing demands of NREGA workers and their organisations, which have been ignored by government at the state and central levels.

The wide variations in the schedule of rates (SoRs) for NREGA works across states is cited as the third reason for not considering it necessary to pay NREGA workers at least at par with agricultural workers. It is unclear why the varying SoRs for NREGA works is a reason for not paying minimum wages as the committee is also recommending that the NREGA wages for 2018-19 should be based on revised SoRs prepared on the basis of a uniform template. Also, it is not as if the current NREGA wage rates take into account the differential SoRs across states. In fact it is the SoRs that should be rejected since they are arbitrary across states and not based on any common or ‘scientific’ principle.

Perhaps the most incomprehensible and unconstitutional justification for not adhering to the Minimum Wages Act is the failure of the government itself in enforcing minimum agricultural wages, especially resulting in unequal wages for women workers. The committee seems to imply that in so far as both women and men workers receive the same wages under NREGA this justifies a wage rate lower than the agricultural minimum wage.

The only welcome recommendation of the Committee is the indexing of NREGA wages to Consumer Price Index – Rural Labourers (CPIRL) instead of Consumer Price Index Agricultural Labourers (CPIAL) as CPIRL better represents the rural consumption basket. However, this recommendation alone will do little to increase the real wage of NREGA workers which they are due for long.

The High Courts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and legal experts have clarified that Section 6(1) of the employment guarantee act does not allow for the overriding of the Minimum Wages Act. In fact, in 1983 in Sanjit Roy vs the State of Rajasthan, the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the use of this very same “non obstante” clause by the State of Rajasthan to justify the non-payment of minimum wages to famine relief workers.

For the past nine years or so, the central government has not revised wages, but has only been indexing the NREGA wages to the price level using CPIAL with April 2009 as the “base”. As a result, in many states the NREGA wage has become significantly less than the state’s minimum wage at various points in time. For instance, currently Bihar’s minimum agricultural wage is Rs 232 whereas the NREGA wage is Rs 177 (of which Rs 9 is contributed by the state government). Jharkhand’s minimum agricultural wage is Rs 61 more than its NREGA wage. The real value of NREGA wages is being further eroded by long and unpredictable delays in wage payments – at times even non-payment of wages – and denial of compensation due to workers for not getting their wages on time.

There have been widespread protests against the stagnation of NREGA wages. This year workers of Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh returned Re 1 to the Prime Minister, the increase in their nominal NREGA wage compared with the last year. Hundreds of workers and their supporters from 13 states gathered at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 11-15 September 2017 to demand, inter alia, a substantial increase in the NREGA wage.

Repeated constitution of Committees for wage revision without implementing the recommendations of the previous Committees indicates the intent of the government to deny a just and constitutionally valid wage for NREGA workers. Without acting on the bulk of the recommendations of CEGC’s ‘Working Group on Wages’ submitted in 2010, the Ministry appointed another Committee under the chairpersonship of Mahendra Dev in 2013. The Ministry accepted the recommendations of this Committee and forwarded them to the Ministry of Finance. However, as revealed by a RTI query, the Finance Ministry rejected the conservative recommendations of this Committee for no justifiable reason. This was followed by the appointment of the Nagesh Singh Committee, which was headed by an official of the Ministry, and, which unlike the previous committees does not include any independent economist or representative of workers’ organisations.

Economically unviable wages are likely to lead to a significant reduction in the viability of NREGA as a law and programme. Given the demand-driven nature of the employment guarantee programme, this may be the actual intention of the government by fixing abysmally low wages as it will allow it to keep the expenditure on NREGA more or less constant in money terms but reduce it in real terms. However, it is quite likely that this will result in illegal contractualisation of NREGA works, and the large-scale fudging of records in order to hire workers at market wages, and cope and “adjust” their wages to the sub minimum wages on paper. It is ironic that the Ministry talks about the increasing quality of assets as being a priority, without a concern for the people contributing their labour to build those assets.

NREGA Sangharsh Morcha demands the following:

  • Rejection of the primary recommendation of the Nagesh Singh Committee.
  • Implementation of the recommendations of CEGC’s “Working Group on Wages” which gave the following options (1) reverting to Section 6(2) i.e. payment of minimum wages as set by State Governments (for agricultural labourers) under the Minimum Wages Act; (2) Central Government to continue fixing NREGA wages but on norm(s) that are indexed to the price level, arrived at after consulting State Governments and representatives of workers’ organisations and adhere to the the Minimum Wages Act; or (3) Amending the employment guarantee act to pay minimum wages to NREGA workers in such a manner that the central government will pay up to a national norm and the State Governments would pay the rest. (I think we should think about this… the Morcha making this 3rd recommendation is potentially politically incorrect and could undermine the nature of the NREGA Act) . It would undermine one central principal, that the Central Government is bound to pay 100% of the wage component.
  • Timely payment of NREGA wages (within 15 days of completion of  work) and payment of full compensation amount in case of delays in wage payments. (make the point that what is being called compensation is actually only interest)

 

Statement issued by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’s Working Committee: 

National networks: Arundhati Dhuru (National Alliance for People’s Movements), Annie Raja (National Federation of Indian Women), Guatam Mody (New Trade Union Initiative) and Right to Food Campaign (Dipa Sinha and Kavita Srivastava)

Local networks: Jarin Wary (The Ant, Assam), (Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Bihar), Indu Devi (Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sagathan, Bihar), (Chhattisgarh Kisan Mazdoor Andolan), Neeta Hardikar (Anandi, Gujarat), Birbal and Sunder Singh (People’s Action for People in Need, Himachal Pradesh), James Herenj and Taramani Sahu (Jharkhand NREGA Watch), Abhay Kumar and Swarna Bhat (Grameena Coolie Karmikara Sangathan, Karnataka), Harsingh Jamre (Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan, Madhya Pradesh), Ashwini Kulkarni (Pragati Abhiyan, Maharashtra), Mukesh Nirwasat and Shankar Singh (Soochna Evan Rozgar Abhiyan, Rajasthan), (Samarth Foundation, Uttar Pradesh), Rambeti, Rina Pandey and Richa Singh (Sangatin Samooh, Uttar Pradesh), Urmila (Vanangana, Uttar Pradesh), Phulwa (Dalit Mahila Samiti, Uttar Pradesh), Anuradha Talwar (Pashchim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti, West Bengal) and (Udayini, West Bengal)

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