New Delhi: Munni Kumari, 24, stood swathed in a shawl alongside scores of other workers at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, many of them from her district, Muzaffarpur in the heart of Bihar, shouting slogans to demand their wages. As Kumari raised an arm, shouting “Apna haqq le kar rahenge (we shall seize our rights),” she clutched her two-year-old with the other hand.
Kumari and hundreds of others from across India who work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have been on a protest in Jantar Mantar since 13 February.
Kumari has outstanding wages totalling Rs 6,000, due to her since July 2022, she said, looking at a poster near their tent that declared it would be a 100-day protest by MGNREGA. Kumari travelled 1,100 km from Bihar to join the protest in Delhi.
Launched in 2005, the MGNREGA provides a guarantee of 100 days of employment in rural India, with 150 million workers employed in 2021-22. Since January 2023, workers have staged protests in district headquarters and taluka towns urging the Union government to respond to their pleas regarding wages unpaid for months, the absence of work despite demand, and a contentious digitisation of the process of providing employment.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government has sought to curtail expenditure on this showcase workfare programme—in 2015, prime minister Narendra Modi called the MGNREGA a "living monument of the Congress’s failures"—a record number of workers, forced by the pandemic and lockdowns to return to native villages, had demanded work under the programme in 2020 and 2021.
In 2020, an additional budgetary allocation of Rs 40,000 crore had to be made for MGNREGA. The Union budget for 2023 almost halved the NREGA allocation in comparison to 2020-21, when the allocation stood at Rs 1.11 lakh crore, to Rs 60,000 crore. The allocation was lower by nearly 17% from the budget estimates for 2022-23 and almost 33% lower than the revised estimates for 2022-23.
“The government has been saying that it is a demand-driven program, but the budget cuts imply that there will be fewer projects taken up every year,” said Anuj Goyal, a researcher with Peoples' Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG). He said delayed payments then demotivate workers to seek work under the programme. “This results in lower demand for work, justifying the lower budget.”
In 2022, a World Bank report said between 23 million and 56 million Indians (depending on which data and methodology are considered) slipped into poverty due to the economic contraction coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic, rendering programmes like the MGNREGA critical to the recovery process.
Neglecting A Critical Workfare Programme
Bhuri Devi, 53, from Bihar’s Muzzaffarpur, said at the Jantar Mantar protest that she could not understand the government’s apparent U-turn on an employment guarantee programme for the poor. “During Covid-19, NREGA saved us from starvation,” Devi said. “But now the government doesn’t want to give NREGA adequate budgets?”
Nandkishore Ram, 52, said he worked for Rs 200 a day as a daily wage labourer whenever work was available. “Kabhi khaate hain, kabhi bhooke rehte hain (sometimes we eat, at other times we stay hungry),” said Ram, who was at a protest in Muzaffarpur before he travelled to Delhi.
A large group of them protested outside the district collector’s office in Muzaffarpur towards the end of January, he said. “But it is like they are deaf to our pain.”
Like Munni Kumari and Bhuri Devi, Ram said he worked on different job sites under the scheme, sometimes as gardeners, sometimes at road or other construction sites, sometimes digging trenches. When work is unavailable under the MGNREGA programme, or in cases where 100 days or work has been provided for the year, they looked for similar work as manual labourers or as farm labourers.
Many workers like Ram told Article 14 that their protests and pain appeared to mean nothing to the government. A “life-saver” for years as a steady source of income even if only for a small number of days, their dues were being denied under the programme, they said.
The Systematic Dismantling Of MGNREGA
Munni Kumari, the mother protesting with her two-year-old child, and Kalasiya Devi, another protesting worker, said a common problem deprived hundreds of their wages, the National Mobile Monitoring System, an application that mandates workers at MGNREGA work sites be photographed upon arrival and departure from the work site and these photos uploaded via the app.
Ostensibly seeking to increase citizen oversight of the programme, the system was launched in May 2022.
According to protestors at Jantar Mantar, the app has led to many workers losing wages. Some women said they do get their photos taken upon arrival, but have to leave the work site in between on account of children or household responsibilities.
If they are unable to upload a photograph at the time that other labourers are leaving the site, they lose the entire day's wage.
Kalasiya, 50, said sometimes the Internet doesn't work in their village. “How do we prove to the government that we worked that day? How will our photos reach the app?"
The NMMS App is used by officials, or “rozgar (employment) mates,” who log the attendance of the workers. Some mates from Bihar were present at the protest in Delhi, and said there were often glitches with the app or the Internet that led to photos failing to upload.
To counter this digital failure, mates have gone back to maintaining manual logs in registers, to keep proof of days the workers undertook labour, they said.
Munni Kumari and her group were working as gardeners at a beautification site in Muzaffarpur. In Delhi, she said she was living during the course of the protest at a shelter home in East Delhi’s Geeta Colony. Food at the protest was provided by the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti, a farm-worker union in West Bengal.
A frail woman with big, expressive eyes, the uneducated Munni Kumari said she would live in Delhi until the group leaders decided to return to Muzaffarpur, perhaps a few weeks.
Workers from other states and districts are arriving at Jantar Mantar in groups, with a new group scheduled to arrive every week.
‘Deeply Exclusionary System Leaves Out The Poor’
“The government should understand that it is for the impoverished that NREGA exists,” said Ashish Ranjan, an activist from Araria in Bihar. “While they are deploying technology in the scheme, this technology is depriving the worker of his wages. It is unsuited, unnecessary and complicates the whole process.”
Ranjan, secretary of the Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, also criticised the Aadhar-based payment system, saying more workers would lose their wages or the opportunity to find work if Aadhaar-based payments were made mandatory.
Though activists have criticised the Ministry of Rural Development’s 30 January 2023 order that made Aadhaar-based payments mandatory for MGNREGA wages, the ministry’s own data showed that the move could exclude 57% of workers, with only 43% workers eligible for the Aadhaar-based payments. In March 2017, the Government made it mandatory to link bank accounts to an Aadhaar number. But for workers, once the Aadhaar card is linked with their account and job card, an authentication process follows before they can receive Aadhaar-based payments.
In several states, large numbers of workers who had their job cards seeded with their Aadhaar were unable to get the Aadhaar-based payments either due to glitches in seeding, or failure of biometric authentication.
Thousands of workers in Bihar were suffering because of the Aadhaar-based payments, Ranjan said. While their bank accounts were linked to their Aadhaar cards, payments were somehow not going through. “A pro-worker Act is being made anti-worker,” Ranjan said, about the payment-related hassles.
Workers said that rather than enabling work and wages, the government’s insistence on logging attendance on the App had disallowed them to receive wages that were rightfully theirs.
Commenting on the manner in which the NMMS App has been imposed, Goyal recounted his experience in Rajasthan. “In Rajasthan, how are you going to identify women in ghunghats (a traditional veil over the face) in the photos uploaded on the app?” he asked. “You cannot ask them to leave behind their culture and traditions.”
He said any worker who misses out on getting his or her information uploaded is at the risk of losing wages. The new system was “deeply exclusionary”, he said.
Unpaid Dues And Unemployment Rise
According to union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, the Union government is yet to pay ₹6,157 crore to 14 States. The payment due from the Centre includes payments for wages and construction material.
Additionally, workers have continued to suffer delayed payments. In the financial year 2022-23, 32.3% wage payments were delayed in Telangana, and 23% of wage payments were delayed in Chhattisgarh.
Anuradha Talwar of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a federation of workers’ unions, told Article 14 that though the law mandates payments within 15 days of musters being signed, workers continued to experience delayed wages and unpaid wages year after year.
“Not paying workers is one way of systematically dismantling the act,” said Talwar, also a representative of the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti. She said the Union and state governments delayed payments or condoned delayed payments in order to dampen demand for work. “... when workers know they won’t be paid, they don’t ask for work and those workers who do ask for work aren’t given work,” she said. “This makes the implementation of the act weaker.”
The delays and unpaid wages “diluted and subverted” the NREGA, she said.
In West Bengal, where no payment has been made to MGNREGA workers since December 2021, Talwar explained how people worked till July 2022 hoping that payments would come. “This has pushed people to migrate and increased distress among people in rural areas,” she said. Especially among women, she added, who form about a quarter of the MGNREGA workforce in West Bengal, distress from unpaid wages and the inability to find work that pays was high.
In West Bengal, Goyal said, while allegations of irregularities in the functioning of the MGNREGA had led to a stalemate between the Union and state governments, workers were caught in the tussle.
Mahender Solanki, a social worker from Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat, said more and more workers were losing hope that MGNREGA work availability and wage payments would improve.
Umesh Rathva, another social worker from Godhra, said that with inflation on the rise, the government should understand that MGNREGA wages are often the only source of income for some families. The government should work towards speedy disbursement of payments, he added.
“Each day that we spend without our wages, our children stay out of school,” said Sunaina Devi, another protesting worker at Jantar Mantar. “And we stay hungry because of the government.”
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(Tarushi Aswani is a New Delhi-based independent journalist.)