On 2-4 August 2022, labourers working under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) from all over the country gathered at Jantar-Mantar, New Delhi with the grouse that the central government has been indifferent to the scheme. They also demanded work and payment of their overdue wages. During the three-day protest, representatives of many political parties, including CPI General Secretary D. Raja, spoke in support of the demands of the labourers.
The protest provided a platform to the workers from all over the country to highlight their problems. Telangana’s Pulikalpana told FORWARD Press that the Centre was not providing adequate funds to the states because most of the beneficiaries of MGNREGS were Dalitbahujans, who didn’t have any means of livelihood in their villages, and that this was a form of casteism. She said that the only work being undertaken in her area under MGNREGS was plantation of saplings and that there wasn’t employment for even 30 days in a year when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA), under which the scheme was launched, guarantees 100 days of employment to every household in the rural areas. Some residents of her village had worked under MGNREGS for 37 days but they are yet to receive their wages. They are being told that “money hasn’t come from the top.”
Pulikalpana, who is a representative of the Dalitbahujan Front, said that the organization was founded in 1991, after nine Dalits were shot dead in Chundur (then a part of Andhra Pradesh, now Telangana). Currently, the organization is working to raise awareness on MGNREGS and the Right to Information Act.
Shankar Rao, a social worker from Telangana, said that MGNREGS undoubtedly was launched to protect the interests of the landless, farm labourers. But villages are no longer on the agenda of the government. He said that not only the Centre but also the state governments were showing little interest in MGNREGA. Shankar Rao said that if the Centre was not disbursing enough funds for MGNREGA, the state government should raise its voice against it, but the Telangana government was also anti-people.
Mohammed Faizu, a MGNREGS worker from Araria district of Bihar, had a different story to relate. He said that he had come to Delhi to tell Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he should give the people work and wages. He said that he had had only six days of work since January this year. That was before the month of March, when a canal was being cleaned and he is yet to be paid the wages for it. Faizu is associated with Jan Jagran Shanti Sangathan, Bihar, which is working for mobilizing the people on the issues related to MGNREGS in the Seemanchal region of the state, including Araria. He said that the mukhiya of his village had the constant refrain that he had no work for them. But the relatives of the mukhiya and other people’s representatives have been awarded contracts for building roads in the rural areas and for other works. When there is no work, he wants to know how the contractors are getting work.
Narayan Mahto from West Bengal’s Purulia district said 90 per cent of the residents of his village were Dalits or backwards. They don’t own farmlands, hence manual labour is their only source of livelihood. Not everyone can migrate to cities for work. He is a MGNREGS worker. He got work for 13 days in January and for seven days in February. But his wages remain unpaid. The village mukhiya says that there is no money to pay his dues.
Rita Devi and Urmila Devi from Pateful block of Bihar’s Vaishali district narrate similar stories. Both of them are from the Nishad community. They said that MGNREGS was steeped in corruption from the top to the bottom. Rita Devi’s anger was palpable when she pointed out that, in keeping with the rules, wages should be paid within 15 days of completion of the work. But in Vaishali, wages haven’t been paid for the past two years. During the coronavirus pandemic, no work was given, nor wages paid. The villagers were in great distress but neither the village mukhiya nor any government functionary cared to find out how they were and what they were doing to make ends meet. Urmila Devi said that the mukhiyas and others were part of this “game” of keeping the poor deprived of work and wages. Rita Devi said that the last time she got work was 2019-20, when she worked for 30 days. But her wages are yet to be paid. Ranjan Kumar, a social worker from Vaishali, also comes from the Nishad community and is pursuing an undergraduate course. He got a MGNREGS job card made because his family’s income was grossly inadequate. “I thought that I will be able to pay for my education by working under MGNREGS. But when the government is not giving us any work, how can we hope to earn,” he said.
Shankar Singh Rawat, a well-known puppetry artiste and social worker from Rajasthan, said that the central government was solely to be blamed for the situation. He said the Centre was dragging its feet in releasing funds for MGNREGA and other schemes to states with non-BJP governments. He noted that the state governments were responsible only for the execution of the scheme. The job-card-holders and the central government are the two key stakeholders. Nowadays, computers are being extensively used for administering the scheme. The attendance of the workers is recorded online and videos of the work done by them are made. But since the BJP is in power at the Centre and the Congress in Rajasthan, the Centre wants the state government to be seen as the villain. Shankar Singh Rawat said that schemes like MGNREGS were launched basically keeping the needs of the Dalitbahujans in mind. He said both MGNREGS and the Right to Information Act came into being because of pressure mounted by the people, and that this was especially true of Rajasthan, where the situation vis-à-vis MGNREGA was somewhat better than in the other states.
On 4 August, the last day of the protest, the organizers handed over memorandums addressed to the President and the Prime Minister to local officials. Among other things, they demanded that at least 100 days of work be provided to all the beneficiaries; that wages be paid within 15 days of the work being completed; that attendance be recorded manually on paper rather than in computers; and that job cards be delinked from Aadhaar cards.
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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