A group of civil society members and labour organisations reached out to the Opposition to “save” the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), alleging that the BJP-led government at Centre was trying to gradually do away with it. The members, in a briefing held on Tuesday for the Members of Parliament at the Constitution Club in Delhi, demanded an increase in budgetary allocation for the scheme and sought the support of opposition parties for the same.
The group consisted of speakers like Nikhil Dey (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Rajasthan), James Herenj (NREGA Watch, Jharkhand), Ashish Ranjan (Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Bihar), Richa Singh (Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, UP), Anuradha Talwar (Paschim Bangal Khet Mazdoor Samiti, West Bengal) and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan among others.
They claimed that crores of labourers and workers have “not been paid since December 2021”, and on top of that, adverse changes in the attendance system as well as the method of payment have proved "disastrous" to the interest of workers. This comes in the midst of a 100-day dharna at Jantar Mantar to protest against "recent attacks" on the scheme.
The broad aim of the briefing was to help MPs defend peoples' right to work under the MGNREGA. Opposition leaders including Sanjay Singh (Aam Aadmi Party), Digvijaya Singh, Uttam Kumar Reddy and Kumar Ketkar (Congress Party), S. Senthilkumar (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), Jawhar Sircar (All India Trinamool Congress Party) among others, attended the event.
Jean Drèze, visiting Professor at Ranchi University, who was presenting the issue, said that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government had unleashed an unprecedented three-pronged attack on MGNREGA -- inadequate funding, the introduction of an Aadhar-based Payment System (ABPS) and the inception of a real-time attendance system through the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) app.
Prof Dreze claimed that this year's funding is only Rs 60,000 crore which is the lowest allocation ever in the history of the programme.
"Funds run out and projects come to a halt. The wages get delayed and are accumulated for months," Prof Dreze said and added that the introduction of digital attendance has further deprived the workers of their wages due to network issues and technical glitches.
"Aadhar-based Payment is so complicated system that even many bankers fail to understand its functionality and the majority of workers cannot be paid through this system. It is illegal and criminal not to pay wages to workers for the work that they have done," he said.
Nikhil Dey added that the current changes in MGNREGA impact “15 crore workers across the country”. “We want a political response from opposition parties to support people on the ground to give them their rights under the law."
The group requested the MPs to issue a Privilege Notice in Parliament to demand an explanation from the Rural Development minister on his remarks to the media suggesting that the state government should also contribute to the wage liability under the programme, contrary to the provisions of MGNREGA.
Responding to the demands, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said that workers' plight is genuine and assured the civil society members of full support. "The intent of this government is always opposed to the ideals of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005. They are cutting down all social service budgets. I am all for the support which is expected from us," he said.
AAP MP Sanjay Singh highlighted the lack of payment, saying, “It is very surprising to know that out of guaranteed 100 days of work, the labourers are getting only 34 days of work due to lack of adequate funds. We will raise the issue in Parliament but at the same time we should also think about starting a people's movement.”
Other MPs also pledged support and said they will do their level best to help highlight the plights of the workers.