By James Herenj, Tara Mani Sahu and Mamta Lakra*
On May 1, International Workers Day or “Mazdoor Diwas” was celebrated across Jharkhand by collectives of individuals and organisations, culminating a week-long series of intensive activities. Thousands of workers gathered in over twenty five blocks across Jharkhand including Kisko (Lohardaga), Chattarpur (Palamu), Manika and Mahuadandh (Latehar), Raidih and Basia (Gumla), Topchanchi (Dhanbad) and Janiamore (Bokaro). Aside from workers, pensioners and other rural residents, these events were attended by many well-wishers including Bezwada Wilson (convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan), Jean Drèze (economist), Anil Anshuman (Jharkhand Jan Sanskriti Manch), Balram Jo (Right to Food Campaign), Mr Vijayanand (ex-Chief Secretary Kerala) and representatives of the CPI(ML) and National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) among other organisations. Bezwada Wilson’s statement “before they ask for a vote, we ask for our rights” resonated widely, capturing the anger of workers.
The past week over twelve thousand workers have signed a petition with three clear demands – increase the wage rate under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), increase the number of days of work under the NREGA and provide a social security net to ensure dignity including universal old age pensions and maternity entitlements (see annexure 1 for charter of demands). In the run up to May Day, NREGA Sahayta Kendras conducted verifications of MIS data and shocking irregularities found. The lists of ‘workers completed 100 days’ indicated a discrepancy of about 15% in 2 Gram Panchayats and after concerted effort only 2% of rejected payments issues were resolved in Basia. Despite these crippling supply side deficiencies, workers are still fighting for their right to work and hundreds have demanded work over the past week, and over a thousand pending complaints have been filed in West Singbhum district itself and over sixty in Shikaripara.
The relentless injustice and humiliation meted out through the depressed and delayed wage payments under NREGA is a particularly charged issue. Despite repeated government appointed committees, including the Mahendra Dev Committee recommending the linking of wages to minimum wage, and indexation to inflation, the Ministry of Rural Development has flagrantly violated these recommendations and has gone so far as to decrease wages in real terms.
This is despite the fact that the budget for rural development has steadily increased over this time. NREGA Sahayta Kendras in Jharkhand, NREGA Watch and NREGA Sangharsh Morcha have knocked on all doors, using every democratic means of protest possible from demonstrations in Delhi, returning the wage increase to the Prime Minister and Chief Minister, petitioning government appointed committees and repeatedly raising this issue with the Central Employment Guarantee Council, a statutory body under the MGNREGA. The silence and disrespect to workers is shocking, and they are now determined to make their voices heard in the elections of 2019.
Due to the incredibly complicated architecture of wage payments, there is a growing phenomenon of “rejected payments” which are simply lost in transit. This has also been raised in an ongoing Public Interest Litigation where the Ministry of Rural Development has repeatedly attempted to mislead the Hon’ble Court insisting that “real time payments are made within 48 hours.”
The reality on the ground as shown by the anger of workers expressed today is a completely different picture. In Jharkhand alone, the pending “rejected payments” are Rs. 56 crore in 16-17 and 15 crore 17-18. Needless to say, not a single functionary has been held accountable for these violations. The growing culture of e-banking with no documents or passbooks given to workers is being abused left, right and centre, and workers demanded full and complete receipts of all their banking transactions.A letter in this regard has been written to the RBI Governor with ten immediate demands (click HERE to read the letter).
Further workers have demanded an increase in the number of days of work under NREGA to 200 days per annum, the removal of mandatory aadhaar from NREGA processes, strict action against officials found guilty of wrong doing under social audits, filing panchayat level vaccancies and stricter monitoring of field functionaires. Further demands relate to the immediate payment of maternity entitlements (Rs 6,000 per child without conditions) under the National Food Security Act, no dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act and an increase in pension amounts from the prevailing rate of Rs. 600 to Rs. 2,000 per month or at least half of minimum wage.