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West Bengal farm workers protest Centre withholding Rs 7,500 crore MGNREGA budget

Counterview Desk 

Marking one year of the Government of India withholding the release of over Rs 7,500 crore MGNREGA funds to West Bengal, the civil rights network NREGA Sangarsh Morcha, in alliance with the Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), held Black Day on December 27, with workers holding black flag demonstrations, thaala bajao, road blockade and public meetings.
Releasing a note on the occasion along with Status of MGNREGA Employment & Wages in West Bengal by Libtech, India and Fact Finding Investigating the Stoppage of MGNREGA Work and Wages, senior activists Anuradha Talwar, Jean Dreze, Nikhil Dey, Parul Saboo and Sanjay Sahni called it “one year of Injustice: one year of NREGA workers wage theft in West Bengal”.

Text:

MGNREGA workers in West Bengal have not been paid wages since 26th December 2021. Today, we mark one year of centre withholding the release of over Rs 7,500 crore MGNREGA funds to the state for ‘non-compliance of central government directives’ invoking the Section 27 of the Act. Out of this amount, the pending wages are touching a staggering gure of Rs.2,744 crore. According to the report, there is around Rs  3,891 crores of perceived loss in NREGA wages from pre-Covid years (average of 2018-19 and 2019-20) and Rs 6046 crores in comparison to post-Covid years (average of 2020-21 and 2021-22) The present stoppage of wages is irrational and leads to victimization of workers who have done their work honestly. It has also pushed poor workers on the brink of starvation.

Violation of Fundamental Rights and Legal Provisions:

Section 27 of the Act may appear to allow the central government to “order stoppage of release of funds to the Scheme” in some circumstances, but this provision cannot be read as a license to stop wage payments to workers who have already worked. These workers have an unconditional right to be paid within 15 days. That line in Section 27 was formulated at a time when the release of funds preceded NREGA work. Today, work comes rst, and then funds are effectively released when the central government pays the wages directly in workers’ accounts. Stopping the release of funds cannot be allowed, even under Section 27, when it has the e ect of depriving workers of their rightful wages.
Both the Central and State Governments are guilty of violating the fundamental Right to life of 3.4 crore registered workers across the state. Denial of work and wages is also in contravention to the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Swaraj Abhiyan case (writ petition 857/2015; full judgement). We understand from news reports that the Government of India (GoI) has stopped transfer of funds after discovering anomalies in the implementation of works under MGNREGA. By turning a blind eye to corruption, the State Government has ensured that funds meant for workers are siphoned o by political goons from the ruling party in the state. With Panchayat elections due in mid 2023, the Centre-State stand-off over NREGA funds is taking on political overtones. While the state asserts that all corrective measures have been taken, BJP at the Centre is however reluctant to release the money before the Panchayat elections. In this political slugfest the sufferers are workers who have been deprived of their wages for the past year.
We encourage that measures should be taken to tackle corruption and increase transparency. E orts should be made to ensure that social audits and grievance redressal mechanisms are e ective. But, the standards of audits and action taken on audit findings are largely unsatisfactory in the state and across the country. The State Employment Guarantee Council (SEGC) and Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) do not exist for the past couple of years (click here for RTI reply). This not only makes a mockery out of transparency and anti corruption measures, but also shows how the GoI is using anti corruption as an excuse while itself violating the Act. Eliminating leakages and irregularities cannot be used as an excuse to undermine the demand driven nature of the Act. This is a continuation of the government’s assault on NREGA and has once again exposed the central government’s lack of commitment for NREGA workers’ rights.

In particular, we demand the following:

  1. Immediate release of MGNREGA funds by Central Government, with immediate starting of new works and issue of new job cards.
  2. The pending wages to the tune of Rs 2,744 crores for all MGNREGA workers need to be released immediately along with the delay compensation at the rate of 0.05% per day for the entire duration of the delay (as per Para 29 of Schedule II of the Act).
  3. Sanction and transfer of the 2022-23 Labour Budget.
  4. Action against anomalies and corruption in the scheme, and strengthening of social audits & grievance redressal mechanisms.
  5. The State Government must start a revolving fund of Rs.1000 crores from which immediate payment of NREGA wages can be done and to ensure timely payment of wages, in the event of future delays or complications in receiving money from the Central Government.
  6. All the documents pertaining to correspondence between the Central Government and the State Government on MGNREGA since 2019, including the reports of central team visits and action taken, should be made public.

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