Any delay in paying the wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is "simply not acceptable" and red-tape cannot be "pedalled" as an excuse to deny payment to the workers, the Supreme Court said today.
The court, while noting that the Centre has admitted delay in payment of wages, said the payments to the workers must be transferred to them immediately, failing which the prescribed compensation would have to be paid.
The top court said that under the Act, a worker was entitled to get his or her due wages within a fortnight of completion of work and if there was any administrative inefficiency or laxity, it was entirely for the state governments and the Ministry of Rural Development to sort out the problem.
A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and N V Ramana said the burden of compliance of provisions of the Act was on the state governments, Union Territory administrations and the Centre and "one entity cannot pass on the burden to another or vice versa".
"In view of the above, we direct the Central Government through the Ministry of Rural Development, in consultation with the state governments and Union Territory administrations to prepare an urgent time bound mandatory program to make the payment of wages and compensation to the workers," the bench said.
"We, therefore, make it clear and direct that in terms of the Act and Schedule II thereof, a worker is entitled to payment of wages within a fortnight of the date on which the work was done, failing which the worker is entitled to the compensation as prescribed in paragraph 29 of the Schedule II of the Act," it said.
The bench said, "notwithstanding the large number of pay orders, we are afraid delays are simply not acceptable," and added that "bureaucratic delays or red tape cannot be pedalled as an excuse to deny payment of wages to the workers."
The top court, which had earlier passed a slew of directions in the matter, said all issues pertaining to the Act now stood closed and "complimented" the Ministry of Rural Development for bringing some significant changes to make the scheme more effective.
"It must, however, take urgent remedial steps to iron out the creases, since there is still some way to go before the Act finally touches the lives of millions of unemployed persons," the bench said.
It said though the Centre has said that there was some improvement in payment of wages to workers, it was not enough.
"The Central Government cannot be seen to shy away from its responsibility or taking advantage of a person who has been placed in the unfortunate situation of having to seek employment under the Act and then not being paid wages for the unskilled manual labour within the statutorily prescribed time," it said.
The top court also dealt with the other issues raised by petitioner NGO Swaraj Abhiyan, including reduction in person days through approved labour budget, agreed to labour budget and cap on funds.
The court said the Centre was statutorily empowered to scrutinise and assess the funds to be released to states and UTs under the Act and there was nothing objectionable in having approved labour budget.
On the issue of capping of funds, the bench said that no state has raised any objection that it has not received the adequate funds for implementation of the scheme.
The bench, while dealing with the Centre's submission that securing funds for implementation of the Act was the responsibility of states, said that this "bottleneck" must be addressed and left it open to Ministry of Rural Development to find a solution.
It stressed on having meaningful discussions while approving or finalising the labour budget as several states and union territories have exceeded the expenditure postulated by the agreed to labour budget.
"It must be appreciated that release of funds is for a good socio-economic cause and therefore expeditious and sufficient availability of funds should be the objective," it said.
The NGO had earlier argued that the Centre cannot cap the funds under the Act which provides for 100 days of employment per family per year.
The Centre had countered the claims saying there was no instance where it has either capped the number of days of employment under the Act or not released funds to the states.
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