Last week, the government had declared that it will not link the Minimum Wage Act to NREGA wages. The Centre, last year, had also decided to freeze the minimum wage paid under NREGA at Rs 100. Subsequently, the wages paid in many states under NREGA are lower than the minimum wages in the state.
The activists’ view was backed by additional solicitor general Indira Jaising, who had said whether or not the minimum wage Act applied to NREGA, anyone paid less than the country’s minimum wages was into forced labour.
Last week, the ministry of rural development and the National Employment Guarantee Council had rejected recommendations of a committee on wages headed by Dreze. The commitee had suggested that NREGA wages be indexed on the minimum wage for agricultural workers.
The ministry is working on a new minimum wage for NREGA. Dreze argued that inflation had already eroded the present minimum wage of Rs 100 and it should be increased to at least Rs 125 to rectify the gap.
Activists said the wage pattern is illegal not only because NREGA workers are getting less than the minimum wage in states like Jharkhand, but because it is paid on a piece rate basis and not as daily wages.
Worse still, the labourers are not only paid on the basis of the number of pits he digs or other such measurable parameters. An individual’s work is often clubbed with the work done by all workers at the site and payment is based on the average work done. Under the circumstances, the worker never manages to earn even the minimum wage. In Rajasthan, for instance, NREGA workers were paid about Rs 77 — less than the minimum NREGA wage of Rs 100 per day.
Activists argue that work done by government employees – whether they be municipality workers or ministers – are not measured. But while compensating the man or woman belonging to the poorest of the poor, his/her work is measured before paying the wage, said Nikhil De of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (MKSS) in Rajasthan. The payments are illegal everywhere and it can be challenged in court anywhere, he added.
Aruna Roy and MKSS are leading a Majdoor Hak Yatra of NREGA workers in Rajasthan, demanding a minimum daily wage of Rs 200, given the kind of measurement-based compensation that is available.
The other cause for concern has been an administrative order passed by the ministry of rural development in 2008. According to it, gram sabhas in each village are the sole authority to conduct social audits of the NREGA. Outsiders are forbidden from taking part in these audits, which were to be led by sarpanches.
The fact that sarpanches are the implementing authorities for NREGA makes auditing by them meaningless, said De, who was heading a state-wide social audit initiative of the MKSS last year. The audit found that NREGA funds were being diverted.
However, the success of the drive led the sarpanches to dig out the administrative order and go to court late this year, leading to an order upholding the sarpanches right to monitor themselves, said De.
Rural Development Minister C P Joshi said the situation would improve with the appointment of deputy ombudsmen to head the gram sabha audit committees.
Civil society members also feel that the National Employment Guarantee Council set up under the NREGA and meant to be a watchdog of the scheme has failed and is totally ineffective.
It has no say, it has no independence and the government does not heed its advice. Its role is reduced to doing whatever the ministry wants it to do, said Dreze, who is a member. But asked if he would step down from the council, he answered in the negative.