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'Move on to slash rural jobs scheme': Govt of India 'suppresses' open discourse on NREGA

By Our Representative 

The civil society group NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (NSM), which has completed its one month of its 100-day dharna at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, has claimed the authorities appear to be bent on refusing to allow any public discussion about the manner in which the premier rural jobs scheme is sought to be undermined by the Government of India.
In a statement, NSM said, “The Delhi police has made it quite clear that no public discussion about NREGA will be allowed beyond Jantar Mantar”, where the dharna is taking place. This, it noted, became clear when “students and activists were detained by the Delhi Police in the middle of a public discussion on NREGA at the Arts Faculty, Delhi University, for which permission was withdrawn on the day of the event.”
The event, organised by a student organisation called Collective, was a discussion on the right to work and NREGA in particular. Renowned economist Jean Dreze, Richa Singh of the Sangatin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, Uttar Pradesh and Somnath of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, Haryana, were slated to speak at the event.
“However, the event had just begun when it was abruptly stopped by the police and the organisers, speakers and other students were taken to the Maurice Nagar police station. Somnath, two students from Delhi University and a foreign student were detained by the police for over three hours”, the statement said.
According to NSM, “This comes a day after the workers were removed from Jantar Mantar despite having obtained prior permission to organise a protest. The workers were asked to vacate the protest site or be removed by force by police personnel in order to make way for an event organised by the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP).”
It added, earlier, “The workers’ right to protest was disrupted by a rally organised by BJP party workers who took over most of the protest site while all other demonstrations were pushed to the sidelines. The protestors were unable to procure mics and even had to bring their own carpets as they were made to settle down in a tiny space beyond the police barricades.”
According to NSM, “These actions on the part of law enforcement authorities will go down in the list of ever-increasing encroachments on the citizens’ right to protest and the right to ask questions of their elected government, a phenomenon all too common in our country today. They are gross violations of the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to peaceful assembly enshrined in the Constitution.”
“Moreover”, it said, “Such an atmosphere of state surveillance and repression points to the unfortunate reality where the space for dissent is shrinking day by day and the idea of democracy itself is under threat.”
It noted, “The poor and the marginalized are being attacked in a comprehensive way on two simultaneous counts -- first, with social security rights like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) being undermined and attacked through budget cuts and illegal imposition of technological interventions. Secondly, being attacked when they raise their voice against these measures in a democratic and peaceful manner.”
According too NSM, during the month-long protest, various workers delegations had made attempts to meet officials of the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) to present their grievances. “But not only were they repeatedly turned away, Union Minister (MoRD) Giriraj Singh also denied having received any NREGA-related complaints in Parliament.”
“Finally”, it said, “On 21 March 2023, a worker delegation from Jharkhand managed to meet MoRD Secretary Shailesh Kumar Singh and Joint Secretary Amit Kataria but they seemed non-committal about the issues presented to them.” Additionally, it added, “Workers from West Bengal whose wages are pending since December 2021 and have not been given any NREGA work through FY 2022-23, have also filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission.”
The demands put forward by NSM to the Government of of India include: 
  • removal of the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) App, which has become mandatory for "attendance" for the workers since January 1, 
  • reversal of the order dated 30 January, 2023 requiring all NREGA payments to be made via the Aadhar Based Payment System (ABPS), 
  • increase in the NREGA budget which has been drastically slashed, 
  • timely payment of wages and immediate release of wages that have been pending for over a year,
  • guaranteed provision of 200 work days annually, and 
  • increase wage-rate from INR 200 to INR 600 per diem.
Meanwhile, several NREGA workers testified at the dharna site as to how the ABPS system of payments was causing wreaking havoc in the villages, given more than 50% of NREGA workers’ bank accounts not being ABPS enabled. Workers were running from pillar to post to complete KYC formalities, often travelling for hours to link their Aadhaar with their job cards and bank accounts, it was stated.
Workers from Karnataka talked about village Hindalgi in Karnataka’s Belagum district, where none of the mates (supervisors under NREGA) have access to smartphones, making it impossible to mark attendance on the NMMS app. As a result, no work was carried out under NREGA in FY 2022-23, depriving many families of their sole source of income.
Workers from Uttar Pradesh raised concerns regarding the Centre’s discontinuation of NREGA funds to the state. They pointed out that if West Bengal funds have been halted due to allegations of corruption, there have been no such allegations in Uttar Pradesh. In spite of this, wages worth over Rs 200 crore owed to NREGA workers from Uttar Pradesh were pending as of 2 March 2023.
Rambeti, a 47-year old NREGA worker from Sitapur District, Uttar Pradesh told the dharna participants, “Because of the online attendance and the problems caused by it, our muster roll shows that we haven't worked, while we are working all seven days of the week and then we do not get paid. And with Aadhar being made mandatory, we are made to go from one office to another, to confirm our details, get KYC done repeatedly, and link Aadhaar with our job cards. But we continue to be told that our accounts are not ABPS-enabled.”
She claimed, she has not received her wages since January 2023 while many others have not been paid since October/ November of last year.
Madhav Maurya, a 36-year old from Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh, added, “We have not been getting regular work for the past two years. We do not even get an unemployment allowance. When we do get some work, the wages are not cleared in time. It takes months to get the payment. They even make many deductions from the payment without giving any explanation.”

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