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Waiting for months, even years in some cases, for NREGA wages: Complain participants in Delhi dharna

By Our Representative
Thousands of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers from about eleven states assembled at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on the second day on Tuesday for dharna called by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a national apex body of the organizations fighting for the implementation of the rural jobs guarantee scheme.
The day began with a review of the struggle for employment guarantee, from the early demand for an employment guarantee scheme in Maharashtra in the early 1970s to recent efforts to save the NREGA from being diluted or dismantled. 
Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, who was actively involved in the campaign for a national employment guarantee act in 2004 and 2005, recalled the main slogan of this campaign and explained how it captures the main purpose of NREGA: “Har haath ko kaam do, kaam ka pura daam do”.
He recalled a less well-remembered slogan: “Trishul naheen, talwar naheen, rozgar chahiye”. In those days, soon after the Gujarat massacres of 2002, when the poison of communalism was spreading to other states as well, the demand for NREGA was partly an effort to counter that trend with a united struggle for the right to livelihood, he suggested.
Close to 12 years after the NREGA came into force, workers’ rights continue to be routinely violated, participants opined, even as enumerating various types of infringement on their rights, especially related to the payment of wages. Higher wages, timely payment and compensation for delays in wage payments emerged as three critical demands of the dharna.
NREGA wages have stagnated in real terms since 2009, when the Act was delinked from the Minimum Wages Act, activists said. Two years ago, the Mahendra Dev committee report recommended re-setting NREGA wages with 2014 as the base, to make them consistent with state-specific minimum wages (at least in the base year). 
The Finance Ministry, however, rejected this recommendation. More recently, another committee report cited in Indian Express apparently recommended continuing with the current practice of raising NREGA wages each year only to the extent that prices increase, it was pointed out.
Anuradha Talwar of Pashchim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti pointed towards the Morcha’s demand of increasing the NREGA wage to Rs 600 a day, which roughly equals the monthly salary of the lowest paid government employees, as per the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission.
Anjali Kumari from Basia block in Jharkhand brought a bag of one-rupee coins collected there from NREGA workers, who are protesting against the measly increase of NREGA wages in Jharkhand this year (Rs 167-168 per day) by returning one rupee to the Prime Minister.
Timely payment of wages was another united demand of the dharna. NREGA wages are supposed to be paid within 15 days, but testimony after testimony showed that timely payment is the exception more than the rule. 
Participants explained that they had been waiting for months, even years in some cases, for their NREGA wages. The central government claims that 70-80% of wages are paid on time, but this is based on an incomplete calculation of the delays, which stops at the point where a Fund Transfer Order (FTO) is sent by the local administration. 
Very often, there is a long gap between the FTO and the actual crediting of workers’ accounts. According to a recent study, if delays are calculated until the crediting of workers’ accounts, then the proportion of wages paid on time (i.e. within 15 days) is more like 20% than the official 70-80%.
As far as compensation is concerned, it was noted, the current rate of 0.05% (of the amount due) per day of delay is an insult to the dignity of NREGA workers. Even that measly amount is not paid, most of the time. Workers are demanding automatic compensation at an enhanced rate of at least 0.5% per day.
Other issues raised related to the demand for an urban employment guarantee scheme, enhanced days of employment under the NREGA, the growing harmful centralisation within the programmes, and an increase in the budget allocation to honour employment as per demand.
Representatives from Sahayta Kendras in Kisko Jharkhand spoke of their struggle to get workers their legal entitlement to an unemployment allowance. Through efforts like theirs, Rs. 2.5 lakh has been paid in unemployment allowance to 150 workers in Jharkhand.
NREGA workers also spoke about their efforts to organise and the repression they often faced in response to these efforts. Nearly three hundred had come from Muzaffarpur (Bihar), where workers’ efforts to organise have faced severe repression in recent months. 
Sanjay Sahni, founder of Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan in Muzaffarpur, explained how seven false FIRs have already been lodged against him and some of his comrades. For good measure, NREGA functionaries who resent SPSS’s efforts to empower NREGA workers have agitated relentlessly for his arrest. 
But Sanjay and his comrades said they were undeterred – they are planning yet another indefinite dharna in Muzaffarpur. this time of the payment of unemployment allowances.
The dharna ended with delegations from the Morcha visiting offices of political parties to voice their demands.

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