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Poor, delayed payments for NREGA leaves lakhs of Himachal rural workers in distress

By Bharat Dogra* 

Recent reports indicate increasing problems in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in Himachal Pradesh, the most disturbing aspect being the long delays in the payments of workers.
According to a report, in most gram panchayats of Himachal Pradesh daily wage payments of thousands of workers have been held up while development works worth crores of rupees have also been held up. Although wage rate has been increased by Rs 9 from April 1, several panchayats have not yet been able to clear the labour component payments of even March. 
Due to lack of budget several panchayats have not been able to purchase cement and other materials since December 2021, nor has it been possible to make the payment for what was procured. So development works have come to a standstill even as the rural development department is saddled with payment of dues worth Rs 10 crore.
Due to a prolonged dry spell since March 1 and the resulting loss of crops the need of people for work has increased, and so this failure of NREGA has affected them even more adversely in recent weeks.
As Himachal Pradesh is scheduled to have elections later this year, the ruling BJP government has tried to be increasingly generous to people and has been announcing various concessions in recent times. In such conditions the increasing problems of NREGA workers and delays of wage payments indicate a wider crisis in NREGA funding and budget, to which the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on rural development schemes had also drawn pointed attention about 5 weeks back in mid-March his year.
The Parliamentary Committee has mentioned that there was corruption in the implementation of MGNREGA as well as delays in wage payment. The Committee spoke of lesser money reaching ‘genuine’ workers due to corruption. Another problem mentioned by the Committee related to late uploading of muster rolls which also resulted in delays in wage payment.
A lot of problems were related to lack of timely availability of adequate budget. Thus, as per the Committee findings, what is being seen at present in Himachal Pradesh is part of a wider trend, although the situation may differ to some extent in various states.
Increasing problems of NREGA workers and delays of wage payments indicate a wider crisis in NREGA funding and budget
To place the situation in proper perspective and to appreciate the real plight of NREGA workers, here we may point out that the present problems have come on top of pre-existing dues and delays. In fact, it has been reported that payments have not been made for MGNREGA work over the past two months, leaving lakhs of workers in distress. Panchayat representatives are quoted as stating that while there may have been delays in making payments for materials even earlier, there had never been such long delays in wage payments before this.
The rule-based payment system of MGNREGA is to make the payment within 15 days, and for any delay beyond this there is provision for adding compensatory additional payment but this is seldom given.
Clearly there is urgent need for setting up a proper system of timely wages in MGNREGA and for ensuring a proper budget for this. Here it may also be pointed out that several NREGA monitoring organizations such as NREGA Sangharsh Morcha and Right to Food Campaign have been giving advance warnings that reduction in the budgetary allocation for this year, compared to the revised estimate for the previous year, will lead to failure in providing adequate work and/or making timely wage payments. 
These organizations have in fact pleaded for making a significant increase in the budgetary allocation for NREGA compared to the previous year, and have backed their demand with detailed calculations of the actual need. This is a demand based program with entitlement assured by law, and so the government must take care to provide adequate budget for this.
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*Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Man Over Machine’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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