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NREGA wages "abysmally low" at Rs 179 per day: Demand to increase them to Rs 600

Counterview Desk
In a letter Prime Minister Narendra Modi, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha secretariat, representing a collective of civil society organizations and independent activists working on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) across the nation, has regretted that “NREGA wages have been abysmally low at a national average of Rs 179 per day”, violating the Minimum Wages Act (MWA), 1948.
Insisting that NREGA wages have been illegally delinked from MWA, the Morcha has said, alongside, one sees is “unpredictable delays in payments” forcing workers to turn away from this programme, “jeopardising growth and development in the country.” It demands, that the MGNREGA wage rates “in all states should be raised to Rs 600.”

Text of the letter:

NREGA has been a lifeline for the poor, with one in every three rural households working in it. About 5 crore households access some employment under this Act every year. Even though most households are able to access their full guarantee to employment under NREGA, the programme has played an important role in increasing rural incomes, women’s labour force participation and financial inclusion.
Notwithstanding several positives, the NREGA wages have been abysmally low at a national average of Rs 179 per day. In as many as 18 states, NREGA wage rates are lower than the corresponding state minimum wage rate This is a gross violation of the Minimum Wages Act (MWA) 1948.
The illegal delinking of NREGA wages from the MWA was reported by two committees -- the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) in 2010 and the Mahendra Dev Committee (MDC) in 2013. Both these committees had representatives from the government, civil society groups and academics.
Moreover, as the MDC noted, NREGA wage rates, indexed using the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural labourers (CPI-AL) fails to accurately represent the current consumption basket of rural households. The wages need to be indexed with the CPI-R. In real terms, NREGA wages have been steadily stagnating making it an unfeasible option for those on the margins of subsistence.
The recommendations from both these committees have been ignored. Instead, the Ministry of Rural Development constituted the Nagesh Singh Committee that included only government representatives that suggested delinking NREGA wages from the Minimum Wages Act. However, it did recommend indexing NREGA wage rates to the Consumer Price Index for Rural Workers (CPI-R).
Former Additional Chief Secretary of Jharkhand, NN Sinha, a member of the Nagesh Singh Committee, wrote a dissent note in which he stated that “MGNREGA work is the last recourse while seeking work”, and that lower payment would push the worker and his family into “sub-human existence”.
This dissent note along with the recommendations of CEGC and the MDC are in line with the Supreme Court judgement of Sanjit Roy Vs State of Rajasthan (1983) case. The SC ruled that “if anything less than the minimum wage is paid to him, he can complain of violation of his fundamental right under Article 23 [Right against Exploitation] and ask the Court to direct payment of the minimum wage to him”.
Thus, the low NREGA wages and the Nagesh Singh Committee report are not just in contravention of the MWA but are also unconstitutional as per the above SC judgement.
On January 17, 2017, the Ministry of Labour and Employment set up an “Expert Committee on Determining the Methodology for Fixing the National Minimum Wage” under the chairmanship of Anoop Satpathy. Using a per head requirement of 2400 calories, 50 grams of protein and 30 grams of fats per day, the Expert Committee has recommended a national floor minimum wage at Rs 375 per day.
On the other hand, according to the 7th Pay Commission, "...recommendations of Dr. Wallace Aykroyd,the noted nutritionist, which stated that an average Indian adult engaged in moderate activity should, on a daily basis, consume 2700 calories comprising 65 grams of protein and around 45-60 grams of fat."
Using this approach, the daily minimum wages for an NREGA worker comes to Rs 600 per day. It must be kept in mind that NREGA work peaks in the pre-monsoon season when the work conditions are the most taxing. Thus nutrition intake must be commensurate to produce a more dignified and healthier work force. As a positive spillover effect, this will also lead to a more productive labour force.
Such low wages, coupled with long and unpredictable delays in payments have forced workers to turn away from this programme. Even a rapid survey would show that the NREGA wages are not commensurate with the quantity of work done thereby causing a blow to the asset building goals too.
Furthermore, the strategy to link NREGA to other asset creation programmes have further reduced the scope of additional availability of work in the villages. NREGA workers form the core of the rural labour force in the country which has tirelessly contributed towards nation building.
There is well documented evidence demonstrating the positive impact they have made towards making durable assets pertaining to water and soil conservation among several others. Their contribution to infrastructure building has led to higher growth of farmers in the country.
However, abysmal wage rates would deter them to take up NREGA work thereby jeopardising growth and development in the country. NREGA Sangharsh Morcha would therefore demand that the MGNREGA wage rates in all states should be raised to Rs 600. We also request that the Government of India should index NREGA wage to CPI-R to make an economically and morally sound country.

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