NEW DELHI: People associated with trade unions, NGOs and workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act have written to additional secretary Nagesh Singh of the Union ministry for rural development, seeking enhanced wages for workers under MGNREGA. Singh is currently chairperson of a committee appointed by the government to consider issues of wages under this Act.
“MGNREGA wages are below the declared minimum wage for agriculture and construction work in many states. This is in direct violation of the fundamental right to equality given in Article 14. It also violates the fundamental right to life guaranteed by Article 21, forcing people to work at less than subsistence wages,” the group pointed out.
The committee appointed under economist Mahendra Dev in 2013 by the Manmohan Singh government had recommended that wage rates be revised every year of the basis of CPI-RL (consumer price index-rural labour) as it takes into consideration more variables that the CPI-AL (consumer price index-agricultural labour).
Anuradha Talwar, Arundhati Dhuru, Kamayani Swamy and Ankita Aggarwal of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, in their letter, point out that “The base wage for MNREGA wage being well below the minimum wage in various states, revisions once every year according to the CPI-AL have resulted in minuscule and ridiculous increase in wages. For 2017-18, the wage revision has been as little as Re 1 for Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, UP and Uttarakhand.”
The social workers point out that in the same period, with the same rates of inflation, the Seventh Pay Commission awarded a minimum wage of Rs18,000 per month for government employees (which works out to Rs 692 per day for 26 days of work). “Please note that the monthly wage is more than what a household in many states would earn from 100 days of MGNREGA work,” the letter says.
The letter points out that revision of MGNREGA wages to adjust for inflation occurs only once a year, while it is the norm that wages are revised twice a year in most industries and occupations.
The letter writers say the Act was implemented for livelihood security, but that will not be achieved if such low wages are paid, and these too are often paid after long delays. “Workers are being forced to migrate and work in precarious conditions in far-away places,” the letter says, adding that people are being left to the mercy of contractors and agents who get cheap labour that can be exploited in conditions similar to bondage.
The writers point to precedents that could be followed – recommendations of the 15th Indian Labour Conference, which recommended a national floor level minimum wage to reduce disparity. This recommendation was taken up in the Seventh Pay Commission. The letter writers say the government must declare a floor level minimum wage for the country based on SC orders and recommendations of the Ackroyd Committee. Also, the consumer price index-rural should be used to revise wages every year, not the CPI-agriculture, as the former is more representative of the current rural consumption basket.