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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 45, October 30, 2010

A Movement having the Potential to Benefit Millions of Poorest People

Saturday 30 October 2010, by Bharat Dogra

The movement initiated by the ‘Campaign for Information and Employment (Suchna Evum Rogjar Adhikar Abhiyan—SERAA)’ in Rajasthan has the potential to benefit millions, even crores, of poorest people not only in Rajasthan but eventually all over India.

The ‘yatra’ and people’s contact programme of this movement started in September with the predominant demand for increasing the minimum wage rate for workers. The State Government had last notified the minimum wage rate at Rs 100 per day for unskilled labourers on May 24, 2008. As a result of the rapid rise in prices since then, a revision of the minimum wage rate was overdue. It may be pointed out here that Section 4 of the Minimum Wages Act 1948 provides for adjustment of minimum rates of wages with the variation in the cost of living index at periodic intervals.

As the mass contact programme of SERAA attracted lakhs of people, the Rajasthan Government came under pressure and quickly announced (on September 29) the enhanced minimum wage rates of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labourers from the existing levels of Rs 100, Rs 107 and Rs 115 to Rs 135, Rs 145 and Rs 155 respectively from January 1, 2011. There was, however, one catch. The new rates would not automatically apply to the biggest category of workers, that is, workers employed in the MGNREGS (Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). In the case of the MGNREGS workers, the State Government said, the additional wage of Rs 35 (Rs 135 minus Rs 100) will be paid only when the Central Government agrees to make this additional payment.

The wage rate of Rs 100 per day was last notified on January 1, 2009 by the Central Government. The Consumer Price Index has risen by 924 points between January 2008 and June 2010 without any corresponding enhancement in the minimum wage rate under the MGNREGS. A rise in the MGNREGS wage is therefore clearly overdue. This issue was discussed in the 12th and 13th Central Employment Guarantee Council meetings. The Working Group on Wages has also submitted recommendations for expediting the settlement of the issue of indexing wages under the MGNREGS to the price level using the Consumer Price Index for agricultural labourers. The Finance Minister had also said the UPA Government is committed to paying a real wage of Rs 100 in the NREGS and this means a wage rate of Rs 100 plus the adjustment for price rise.

Thus clearly there is a very strong ground for raising the MGNREGS wage, but the delay is due to confusion and uncertainty about who will bear the burden of the wage-rise—the State governments or the Central Government.

PRESENTING the viewpoint of the Rajasthan Government, C.S. Rajan, Principal Secretary to the Government of Rajasthan, has written in a communication to Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India (letter dated October 18, 2010): “Since the wages for unskilled manual workers under NREGS is borne entirely by the Central Government as per Section 21(i)(a) of the NREG Act 2005, it is requested that the minimum wage as finalised by the State Government may be notified by the Central Government at the earliest so that the enhanced minimum wage rates become applicable to the NREGA workers within the State at the earliest.”

However, according to a note of the Government of India, January 1, 2009, “It has been decided to cap the wage rate at Rs 100 under NREGA. Expenditure on wage rate notified by State governments over and above Rs 100 would be borne by the respective State Government.”

It is for the Centre and the State governments to resolve who will bear the wage burden of MGNREGS above the wage rate of Rs 100 per day, but what is clear above all is that legally it is not possible to pay less than the minimum wage to the MGNREGS workers.

In the Sanjit Roy vs State of Rajasthan case the Supreme Court held (order dated January 20, 1983): “Whenever any labour or service is taken by the State from any person, whether he is affected by drought and scarcity conditions or not, the State must pay, at the least, minimum wage to such person on pain of violation of Article 23.”

Indira Jaisingh, Additional Solicitor General, Government of India, recently gave her legal opinion: “The payment of wage below minimum wage would amount to forced labour.”

Therefore, it is clear that as per the highly justified demands of SERAA which have a strong legal base and are engaging the attention of the State and the Central governments,

a) The minimum wage rate for the NREGS workers has to be raised to Rs 135 with effect from January 2011 as announcement of the rise in the overall minimum wage has already been made.

b) When the NREGS wage rate is raised in Rajasthan, it’ll have to be raised in all those States where the minimum wage rate is higher than the current NREGS wage rate.

c) Once the freeze on the MGNREGS wage rate is lifted, then benefits will sooner or later reach all parts of the country.

d) This movement has also raised the demand for linking the MGNREGS wage to a properly worked out Consumer Price Index so that future wage rises will take place in response to price rise at regular intervals.

e) The SERAA movement has also established a People’s Pay Commission so that the concerns of the poorest sections are not ignored in future when decisions on pay/wage rise are taken.

f) The SERAA movement has effectively raised issues like glaring underpayment of workers’ dues and long delays in payment. It has received government assurance for payment of compen-sation if the MGNREGS payments are delayed.

g) This movement has focused attention on the shocking levels of inequalities in income which are being promoted by the government’s policies. This effort has led to mass mobilisation on the issue of income inequalities as workers and small farmers realise the glaring injustice of the existing system.

This movement thus has a great potential for not only giving immediate benefits to the poorest workers but also challenging the glaring inequalities in income.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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