By Swatilekha Chakraborty, Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (or, NREGA No 42) was later renamed as the “Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” (or, MGNREGA), is labor and social security act that aims to guarantee the ‘right to work‘. It aims to ensure livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
Starting from 200 districts on 2 February 2006, the NREGA covered all the districts of India from 1 April 2008. The MGNREGA was initiated with the objective of “enhancing livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year, to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work”. Another aim of MGNREGA is to create durable assets (such as roads, canals, ponds, wells). MGNREGA is to be implemented mainly by gram panchayats (GPs). The involvement of contractors is banned. Labor-intensive tasks like creating infrastructure for water harvesting, drought relief and flood control are preferred.
Apart from providing economic security and creating rural assets, NREGA can help in protecting the environment, empowering rural women, reducing rural-urban migration and fostering social equity, among others.”
The law provides many safeguards to promote its effective management and implementation. The act explicitly mentions the principles and agencies for implementation, list of allowed works, financing pattern, monitoring and evaluation, and most importantly the detailed measures to ensure transparency and accountability.
Key design features in the context of social security and unemployment support of the Act are as follows: –
- Guaranteed Employment – Any adult member of a rural household applying for work under the Act is entitled to employment. Every rural household is entitled to not more than 100 days of employment.
- Guaranteed Wages – Wages are to be paid on a weekly basis and not beyond a fortnight. Wages are to be paid on the basis of:
- Centre- notified, state- specific MGNREGA wage list
- Time rates and Piece rates as per state- specific Schedule of Rates (SoRs)
- In any case, the wage cannot be at a rate less than Rs. 100 per day.
- Unemployment Allowance – If work is not provided within 15 days of applying, the state is expected to pay an unemployment allowance which is one- fourth of the wage rate.
- Provision of Work – Work is to be provided within a 5km radius of the applicant’s village, else compensation of 10 per cent extra wage is to be provided to meet expenses of travel.
- Gender Equity – Men and women are entitled to equal payment of wages. One- third of the beneficiaries are supposed to be women. Worksite facilities like creches are to be provided at all worksites.
- Rights- based, demand- driven approach – Estimation and planning of work is conducted on the basis of the demand for work. Hence, beneficiaries of the scheme are enabled to decide the point in time at which they want to work.
PROBLEMS WHILE IMPOSITION
The MGNREGA is an important step towards realisation of the right to work. It is expected to enhance people’s livelihood security on a sustained basis, by developing economic and social infrastructure in rural areas. One of the most distinguishing features of the NREGA is its approach towards empowering citizens to play an active role in the implementation of employment guarantee schemes, through gram sabhas, social audit, participatory planning and other activities.
“More than 83.05 lakh rural households have been provided work under the NREGA,” said Rural Development Minister Dr Raghuvansh Prasad at a meeting in the Lok Sabha on August 25, 2006. He went on to add that 254,73,820 job cards had been issued, of which 89,43,703 people had demanded employment.
The NREGA is being closely monitored by various stakeholders, from policymakers to grassroots organisations. Surveys — both rapid and extensive — are being carried out to assess its implementation on the ground. Reports point out where the Act is lagging behind, and areas where efforts are visible and appreciated. This article discusses some quarters that need to be addressed in order to meet the objectives of the Act.
Disruption due to imposition of election code of conduct
Elections (including by-polls and state elections) also disrupt the Act’s implementation. Early this year (in March 2006), some states like West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam witnessed a disruption in the NREGA due to the imposition of the election code of conduct. Lately, the NREGA process is being disrupted in the Malda and Puruliya districts of West Bengal, on account of by-polls. Absence of confirmed employment, refusal of work to applicants and a ban on starting new works in these areas are forcing laborers to migrate in search of work.
Delay in wage payments
Delays in wage payments have always been a matter of concern in previous employment programmes, and this issue continues to plague the NREGA. Wage payments are delayed for weeks, sometimes months. The time lag varies from state to state. For instance, in Jashpur district, Chhattisgarh, month-long delays were noted. In some areas like Barwani district, Madhya Pradesh, the delay was for a period of 15 to 30 days. Delays were also noted in Manika and Manatu blocks in Jharkhand.
Payment of less than the minimum wage
In many states, workers do not earn minimum wages. For instance, in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district the paid wage is as low as Rs 4 to Rs 7 (status report on implementation of the NREGA in Gujarat, prepared by Sabar Ekta Manch and Janpath, April 2006); in Kalahandi district (Bhawanipatna block) of Orissa workers earn between Rs 40-Rs 50, whereas the minimum wage is Rs 55. Women are paid even less — about Rs 30 per day. In some states like Jharkhand, workers are paid as little as Rs 10.
While we have highlighted some of the implementation problems of the MGNREGA, it is important to note that the Act is still in its infancy. It takes years to put in place the tools and instruments needed to actualize the right to employment through a scheme, even in the best of circumstances.
The NREGA addresses itself chiefly to working people and their fundamental right to live with dignity. The success of the NREGA, however, will depend on people’s realization of the Act as a right. Effective levels of awareness and sustained public pressure are crucial to ensure that the implementation problems are addressed and the objectives met.
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