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No compelling reason why NREGA workers should get minimum wages as stipulated by Act: Govt of India panel

By Rajiv Shah
In a move that has shocked farm workers’ activists, a high-level Government of India committee headed by a senior bureaucrat has recommended that the wages paid under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) cannot be on par with minimum agricultural wages law for rural farm workers.
In its report, the Committee on Alignment of NREGA Wages with Minimum Agricultural Wages, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development, has said a major reason why there should be divergence is, “There is a major difference in the work done by the agricultural labourers and the work performed by NREGA workers.”
Headed by additional secretary Nagesh Singh, the committee, which has given its recommendations in July 2017, believes, this is necessary, as “the wage rate for agricultural labourer is basically a time rate”, while “wages under NREGA are for piece rate work with fixed schedule of rates for work which is measured and only then payment is made.”
Even otherwise, says the committee, the workers under NREGA “by and large” work less than other rural workers: “An agricultural worker is expected to have a nine hour work day with eight hours of work and one hour of rest”, adding, on the other hand, an NREGA worker “is expected to have an eight hour work day with 7 hours of work and one hour of rest.”
The committee’s recommendation is based on section 6(1) of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, which said, “Notwithstanding anything contained in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Central Government may, by notification, specify the wage rate for the purposes of this Act.”
Another major reason why the committee rejects the idea of going according to the minimum wages, it says, is that “state governments follow different methods for fixation of minimum wages for agricultural labour” and “wages also differ for different agricultural activities”.
Insisting that NREGA wages are, in fact, based on “scientific principles of indexation”, the committee, even as asking states “to follow a uniform and scientific policy for indexation”, underlines, “r.”
Pointing out that, as payments under NREGA “depend on the work accomplished and the schedule of rates (SORs)”, the committee recommends setting up of a technical team consisting engineers from
“reputed” institutes to work out “templates for preparing SORs for major items of work” taken up under NREGA.”
Interestingly, the committee rejects the recommendation another panel NREGA wage fixation headed by Prof Mahendra Dev, director, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, which said in 2015 that “the baseline for NREGA wage indexation” should be the current minimum wage rate for unskilled agricultural labourers fixed by the states under the Minimum Wages Act, or the current NREGA wage rate, “whichever is higher.”
Taking strong exception to the committee’s recommendations, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, which is the apex body of tens of organizations seeking to link NREGA wages with minimum wage rate, has accused it of “perpetuating” the violation of the Minimum Wages Act.
“The constitutional courts have repeatedly stated that the Minimum Wages Act cannot be violated under any circumstances”, the Morcha says in a statement, adding, “The High Courts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and legal experts have clarified that Section 6(1) of the NREGA does not allow for the overriding of the Minimum Wages Act.”

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