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'Centre undermining NREGA, which served as foundation of Bengal rural economy'

 
Counterview Desk 
About 100 human rights lawyers and legal experts have sought immediate disbursal of wages pending since two years to NREGA workers in West Bengal, with full compensation and resumption of work. 
In a letter to the secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development, they said, the  Union Government stopped funding the scheme in West Bengal since 9th March, 2022, based on allegations of corruption in the implementation process. 
"However, the need to investigate into allegations of corruption by implementing agencies cannot be at cross purposes with the State's duty to uphold workers' rights", they added.

Text:

We the undersigned 100 lawyers and legal professionals from across India, write to you, on behalf of the National Alliance for Justice, Accountability, and Rights (NAJAR), to express our deep concern over the Central Government’s incorrect and heavily punitive decision to withhold work and freeze the NREGA funds to the State of West Bengal since the last two years, citing various discrepancies.
As you are aware, the Union Government has stopped funding the scheme in West Bengal since 9th March, 2022, based on allegations of corruption in the implementation process. However, the need to investigate into allegations of corruption by implementing agencies cannot be at cross purposes with the State's duty to uphold workers' rights (including timely provision of work, wages & compensation) under statute. Therefore, the pursuit of the former must not be allowed to lead to denial or violation of the latter.
We are also writing to you, based on our appraisal of the grim ground situation and a recent fact-finding visit by some of our members to Katakhal village (North 24 Parganas district) and interaction with workers from some other villages of the said district on 27th Nov, 2023.
Available data shows that Bengal has been one of the best-performing states in terms of implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA, 2005). In the year 2021-22, Bengal employed the highest number of unskilled workers and created the second-highest number of person-days, after Rajasthan, under the Act, with many important civic works being undertaken under the scheme. 
Thus, NREGA has served as the foundation of Bengal’s rural economy. This stoppage of funds has thus resulted in withholding of wages for work already done and non-resumption of work. The Centre’s decision to withhold funds for a prolonged period and in this manner, is thus a direct attack on the constitutional and human rights of the workers.
The right to work and timely payment of wages are further, both independent statutory rights under the Act, and the non-payment of wages and non-resumption of work has led to the violation of both these statutory rights as well. It is also important to note that the workers were neither forewarned nor informed by the Central Government about any intention to stop funds to the State. .
Further, the 9th March, 2022 order intimating the State Government that the Centre was stopping its funds for not acting upon prior notices, was also not communicated to the workers by the Government of West Bengal. On the contrary, the workers were kept completely in the dark and were told that they would be paid for work done by them. So, they continued to work but eventually did not receive their wages for work done by them, with the result that an amount of Rs. 3,000 /- to Rs. 8,000 /- is said to be due to each worker on an average.    
The NREGA Act specifically mandates timely payment of wages; it is one of the important features of the statute, the non-compliance of which violates Section 3 of the said Act. The prolonged freeze on fund-release by the Centre is not only a blatant violation of the said section, but is also against the spirit of the Act. Furthermore, it is against the directions and guidelines issued by the Hon’ble Apex Court in the case of Swaraj Abhiyan[2] where the Supreme Court has categorically recorded that: “The Central Government cannot be seen to shy away from its responsibility or taking advantage of a person who has been placed in the unfortunate situation of having to seek employment under the Act and then not being paid wages for unskilled manual labour within the statutorily prescribed time. The State Governments and Union Territory may be at fault, but that does not absolve the Central Government of its duty."
It is important to remember that Section 27 of the NREGA Act provides for stoppage of release of funds only for a reasonable period of time, that too, with a mandate to institute appropriate remedial measures within a reasonable period of time. Therefore, our questions to the Union Government are:
Ø  Can payments be stopped for such prolonged periods such as 2 years?
Ø  When payments are required by Section 3 to be made within 7 days and in any case, not beyond 15 days, can a period of 2 years said to be ‘reasonable’?
Ø  Does such prolonged stoppage of fund-release not defeat the very purpose of the Act, whose objects are to support (rather than defeat) - the entitlement to work and timely receipt of wages, of the rural poor of this country?
Further, Section 7 provides for an unemployment allowance in case of non-payment & Para 30, Schedule II provides for a further entitlement to compensation as well, in case of delays beyond a period of 15 days.
Ø  Therefore, doesn’t such prolonged stoppage of fund-release entitle the workers to receive unemployment allowance under the NREGA Act?
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 was legislated after protracted people’s struggles and in furtherance of the constitutional vision of ensuring and securing every citizens’ right to a dignified life. NREGA is a matter of right as the State is under a positive obligation to provide employment for workers from rural areas by empowering workers to demand and secure work and timely wages on the strength of this legal entitlement. Thus, the stoppage of funds and non-commissioning of work is grossly violative of the very spirit of the Act, apart from transgressing the fundamental and inalienable rights guaranteed in the Constitution under Articles 14, 19 and 21.
Data shows Bengal has been a best-performing state in terms of implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
As part of its fact-finding in Nov’23, a delegation of NAJAR interacted with affected villagers / workers, including several impacted women who are suffering and aggrieved by... 
1.    Non-payment of wages: Despite work done more than 1.5 – 2 years ago, the wages of workers still remain unpaid. Women are particularly impacted by this, as these actions by the Centre have stripped them of their rights, economic independence, food security and self-confidence that they had begun to slowly realize under the Act. They have details of their work done and unpaid wages, and therefore, their pending wages can be immediately released based upon their entitlements.
2.    Massive Migration: The severe distress in villages caused by the above-mentioned loss of work and wages, is leading to massive migration of men to other states. Men from Purulia district and North 24 Parganas district have migrated en masse to faraway places such as Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Karnataka to work in brick kilns, factories, and construction sites, often in precarious conditions. In a village named Haridih with a population of 300, it is estimated that around 75% of the villagers, mostly young men, have migrated to urban areas in search of employment. In Deuli village with a population of approximately 1300 people, more than 300-400 people have migrated to far-off places.
3.    Food scarcity and hunger: Families are suffering a severe food crisis, barely surviving on rice and potatoes. The PDS rations (3 kg rice, 2 kg wheat) are grossly insufficient. With the non-operation of the Act, managing the household and affording a square meal has become difficult and workers are being forced to resort to foraging.
4.    Non-payment of unemployment allowance: Many workers have also stated that despite repeatedly applying for the mandated unemployment allowance, they have not received it, which is yet another distressing violation of Section 7 of the Act. 
5.    We were also informed that the workers have met with authorities at all levels, submitted numerous memoranda, participated in peaceful protests and even met MPs and MoRD officials multiple times in Delhi and Bengal, with little result thus far.
Against this deeply disturbing backdrop, we hope and expect that the Centre immediately reconsiders its decision, and works with an empathetic and humane view of the present situation at hand, instead of its present incorrect, unreasonable and punitive decision of stopping funds for no fault of bonafide workers. In the ‘tussle’ between the two elected governments of the Centre and the State of West Bengal, why must workers bear the brunt? Why must workers’ rights be mercilessly trampled upon and crushed, and why must they suffer immeasurable hardship and injustice?
Thousands of NREGA workers have waited long enough for their rightful dues. Their pending wages to the tune of Rs. 2,600/- crores in West Bengal must be released without further delay, along with the rightful and full compensation (and unemployment allowance) for the prolonged wait. The 0.05% daily compensation provided in Para 29 of Schedule II of the NREGA Act, 2005 is not just a legal requirement, but also a matter of basic justice, that must be provided to the workers from 17th December, 2021 (the actual date of stoppage).
NAJAR urges the Union Government to stop penalizing impoverished workers for any alleged corruption and lapses by the system and bureaucracy of a State. Any inquiry into such allegations must be completely independent of timely payments to eligible workers, as per requirements of the NREGA Act and the right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution.
We therefore, call upon the Central Government to uphold the NREGA Act fully in letter and spirit and to ensure that timely wage payments, compensation, unemployment allowance and timely provision of minimum 100-days’ work per year under NREGA becomes the steadfast norm, honoured and implemented by the Centre as well as the State Government.
We look forward to your immediate intervention in this regard, in order to restore the workers’ right to life with dignity, right to work and payments in the State of West Bengal, at the earliest.
---
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