Akansha Deshmukh | Jan 17 | 7 min read
The post-pandemic wage reduction in cities made them return to their natives, but the inefficient job guarantee scheme again forced them to go out in search of work
Dhar, Madhya Pradesh: Sarla Kumari and others braved rain as they protested in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar for three days straight last August. Among other things, they wanted immediate clearance of backlog in wage payments under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) Scheme.
"The MGNREGA rules require a worker to be paid within 15 days, but it has been more than a year since we received any payment. Nothing has happened even after the Delhi stir," says Kumari from Badnawar block, Dhar, who has never been to a city for work.
Asked why she worked under the scheme when the payment was not just low but also delayed inordinately, she retorts, "Is there any other option? How can I take my children to a completely new place? At least I know this village. When not employed under MGNREGA, I try to find work elsewhere.”
“The store owner will not give us groceries on credit. Why would he care whether we got our wages or not?" she goes on. All she wants from the government is the disbursal of wages within 15 days of work, and it is of utmost importance to people like her who do not own farmland.
The MGNREGA workers in all eight tehsils of Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh are vexed by low wages and its non-payment. The scheme’s mandate is to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every rural household, but the official figures say Rs 5295.21 lakh remain unpaid in Dhar for the 2021-22 financial year.
tribal-dominated district has 12 lakh families in its 1,534 villages, with falling
below the poverty line. Across its 761 gram panchayats, nearly 10 lakh workers
are constantly on the lookout for employment.
The cascading effect
According to a March 2022 from the Ministry of Rural Development which revised wages under the scheme, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have the lowest MGNREGA wages of Rs 204 a day for unskilled manual workers.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, workers returned to their native villages and started taking up MGNREGA work without job cards. Dhar district currently has 2.36 lakh active job cardholders but has 4.52 lakh active workers, the number of cardholders and active workers doesn't tally, according to the data provided by Madhya Pradesh State Employment Guarantee Council Chief Executive Officer Sufiyah Faruqui Wali.
As things limped back to normal, thousands of labourers in the district once again set on their journeys to find employment. However, in the post-pandemic conditions, even work in cities was not rewarding. “Before the pandemic, factory owners in the city used to pay us up to Rs 12,000 per month, but the influx of labourers reduced the pay by half,” cites Radhabai of Bodhwada village in Tirla block.
Her husband alone went back to the city after the pandemic, but he too had to return as his wages were too low. As the couple had been out of work because there was no work under the MGNREGA for long, now their only source of hope is their farmland where they grow soybean. “Heavy rains destroyed most of the yield this time… If we get our MGNREGA dues, at least we will tide over this difficult phase,” she sighs.
Sakharam Suraj Mujalde of Borghata village in Chikli Balwari says guaranteed workdays per person should be increased to at least 150 to 200 days. “One cannot run the household with just Rs. 20,400 in 100 days of employment a year,” states the village sarpanch’s husband.
Many workers have migrated to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka to earn around two times more wages than what the MGNREGA pays. However, their families in Dhar still rely on the scheme. "Whatever work comes under the scheme, people have to do it. Is there another option," he asks. In fact, of labourers under MGNREGA in Dhar district are women.
Man vs machine
Under the MGNREGA Act, 2005, the Centre determines the state-wise wage rates for unskilled manual labourers. On why Madhya Pradesh has the lowest daily wage, Sufiyah Faruqui Wali tells 101Reporters that the wages are fixed according to the changes in the Consumer Price Index-Agriculture Labour (CPI-AL), which reflects the increase in inflation in rural areas. “The Labour Department of each State provides the Centre with the CPI-AL data,” she adds.
Asked about delayed payments, the IAS officer claims there has not been any substantial delay in the wage component of the MGNREGA funds. In the year 2021-22, about Rs 8 lakh was pending in wages in Dhar, compared to a Rs 245 lakh unpaid bill for materials. Across the state, Rs 813 lakhs in wages were pending, from a total unpaid bill of 5,295 lakhs.
With low wages becoming an issue, the panchayats are flouting the scheme’s operational guidelines to use machinery for work and misrepresenting this on the paperwork.
Take the case of Gandhwani block where families in large numbers have migrated to other States. “Only one-third of the job card holders in the district do not want work under the MGNREGA. The rest want to work, but the wages are too low for them. Amid these issues, there is pressure on the district to get the job done under the MGNREGA, which leads to fraudulent ways like use of machinery and workers with no job cards,” a panchayat secretary in Gandhwani block told 101Reporters on condition of anonymity.
According to him, complaints of wages under the scheme being released in the names of deceased job card holders, or payments being made to people who have not even worked under the scheme frequently come up before the district administration.
Meanwhile, Kisan Mazdoor Union Dhar district president Rajesh Pawar gave a different view of things. “Heavy use of machinery has forced the struggling working class to migrate. Only nistar ponds, Release Monitoring Scheme (RMS) and culverts are made with the help of labourers. Rest of the work is done by pollen harvesting machines, JCB (Joseph Cyril Bamford Excavators Ltd) and Flory (concrete mixer machine). The situation is such that villagers are migrating from Gandhwani by busloads to Gujarat in search of work.”
He further alleges that work under the MGNREGA was done only on paper. “The officials just record that the work is over, but in reality, no work would have been done.”
Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan activist Madhuri feels MGNREGA funds have become a source of corruption. “In certain cases, workers had to wait for months together to get their wages and still ended up getting only Rs 30 of the promised amount. The introduction of technology has made the system more opaque. E-attendance has not helped much as people who actually work may not have the connectivity or access to a device to register.
Works under MGNREGA have come to a halt for the last six months in several gram panchayats of Sadarpur gram panchayat mainly due to pending payments. Around seven months ago, the sarpanch union of Sardarpur block presented a memorandum to the officials seeking clearance of dues.
Sardarpur gram panchayat has the most number of villages in all the 13 blocks of Dhar. Mindha is one among the 190 villages that are part of the panchayat. Its sarpanch Mayaram Meda, also the sarpanch union president, tells 101Reporters that even two-year-old payments are still due.
“On November 13 last, our union submitted a memorandum to Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Mahendra Singh Sisodia through Sub-Divisional Magistrate Shailendra Kumar Sharma. People invariably have to wait over six months without payment. As a result, no one turns up for work.”
In addition, not much work is available. Meda says the State government should start roadworks to open up more avenues of employment for villagers. “Otherwise, people will have to resort to protests.”
Panchayat Secretary of Minda, Jagdish Parmar says many people were forced to leave behind their elderly relatives at home. “It is very tough for families to sustain with such low labour charges.”
Cover Photo courtesy of Flickr/DFID
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
More stories published under