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MGNREGA suffering a slow death? MPs, labour activists and civil society members discuss

Disparaged by the media and corporate classes as a white elephant at the time of its inception, MGNREGA continues to be vilified, as the government strangles it with schemes like linking of workers’ bank accounts with Aadhaar and mandatory digital attendance with photographic evidence.

HAR haath ko kaam do, kaam ka poora daam do.” (Give work to every hand, pay fairly for that work) is the slogan with which Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) workers are campaigning in Delhi against budgetary cuts to the scheme and the imposition of additional restrictions on workers, by way of mandatory online attendance and linking of bank accounts with Aadhaar.

The intention behind these changes seems to be: “You can work, but you can’t get paid,” according to social activist Nikhil Dey, founding member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which organised a symposium titled ‘State versus the People: Attack on MGNREGA and Peoples’ Rights’ at the India International Centre in Delhi on Monday.

Yesterday marked the 40th day of the protest by MGNREGA workers at Jantar Mantar, conducted under the ‘NREGA Sangharsh Morcha’ banner. The protest is planned to continue for 100 days, equivalent to the number of work days guaranteed annually under the MGNREGA.

Among those present at the symposium were Members of Parliament Prof. Manoj Kumar Jha and Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan, writer and social activist Harsh Mander, labour rights activists, and concerned citizens. Ten of the protesting MGNREGA workers had also been invited.

Only solution is to hit the streets in protest— Jha

Sadak se darte hain vo, sansad se nahi,” Prof. Jha said, before translating his own statement, “They are mortally afraid of the force on the street, not the force within the Parliament,” presenting protest as the “only solution” to stem what is seen as an onslaught on the MGNREGA scheme.

Karunanidhi, who heads the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, claimed that the Union government had no intention to implement the MGNREGA in spirit, adding that it had promised to increase the number of work days guaranteed under the scheme, but had ended up reducing it. “When you ask the finance minister about budget cuts, she says ‘the work is demand driven,’” Karunanidhi lamented. “But the standing committee will continue asking questions [about budget cuts],” she assured the audience.

You can go to court, but it is very hard to get cases listed in the Supreme Court (for hearing),” Bhushan said. “Even when a decision arrives, the benches are not sympathetic (to the cause of the workers).”

Judges are willing to close their eyes to law, even where the law is clear,” he went on, adding that the solution ultimately is to leverage “the full brunt of public opinion [against unjust policies]”.

Dey, who was also moderating the event, asserted, “It is not fair to expect people to move court [on NREGA],” while also appealing to members of the legal fraternity to suggest ways to apprise the State “that they cannot undermine the NREGA”.

Dey continued, “NREGA workers are the only ones paid as per the proportion of work done by them,” and still, they are the ones on whom additional measures are being imposed.

Complex measures

The Union Ministry of Rural Development has, from January 1 this year, implemented a system of capturing the attendance of workers through the National Mobile Monitoring System App. Attendance is recorded on the app twice per day, with photographic proof attached.

Workers complain that the process laid down is excessively cumbersome and unnecessarily complex. “One can’t ensure that, at the time the photo is to be uploaded, there would be a good enough signal,” said labour rights activist Rajshekhar. Since they have to wait for recording the second attendance for a day, approved by the overseer and conducted between 2–5 p.m., workers are not able to go home or to other jobs even after completing their tasks for the day.

A second objection was raised to the ministry’s decision to mandatorily send all MGREGA payments through the Aadhar-based payment system, under which it has been made compulsory to link bank accounts with Aadhar. “Government’s own data says that more than 50 percent banks accounts aren’t linked to Aadhar,” Rajshekhar noted, accusing the government of making policies “Dilli mein baithhe” (sitting aloof in Delhi).

On this point, Dey said, “We had a meeting with the secretary, rural development. We asked him what advantage in rural development does the government see in mandating linking bank accounts with Aadhaar? Money was anyway going to the right bank account. The secretary told us, ‘We will postpone the deadline [of mandatory Aadhaar linkage] by a few months.’” But the secretary did not assure us that the policy would be scrapped, Dey added.

The aim, according to labour activist Mukesh Goswami, is to “frustrate the workers. Taaki aana hi band kardein” (so that they stop coming all together).

Breaking the narrative

When the MGNREGA was introduced in 2005, it was disparaged in the media as “too expensive, especially by the corporate class”, noted Pamela Philipose, public editor of The Wire and a senior fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research. A narrative was built up that “the country cannot afford it,” she added.

Multiple speakers before Philipose flagged concerns about the ‘narrative’ that MGNREGA workers are paid ‘too much for too little work’ and ‘the scheme is a waste of State funds’.

The government wants to keep it alive only for political reasons. Band nahi karenge, but zinda bhi nahi rehne denge” (they won’t close it down, but they won’t let it survive as well), said activist and MKSS co-founder Shankar Singh.

[W]hat we are seeing is the prophecy of a death foretold coming true,” Philipose said.

Towards the end of the event, MGNREGA workers grouped together for a song, labouring the following verse with love:

“Hum geeton se, naaro se, aawaz uthhaenge,

Chahe jo bhi karlo, hum to badte jayenge.”

(With songs and slogans, we will keep raising our voices,

Do whatever you want, we will keep moving forward.)