For over a month now, hundreds of people working under a government rural employment scheme have been protesting at Jantar Mantar in the Indian capital of Delhi. Among the key issues being raised at the sit-in protest, which is set to last for 100 days, are budget cuts imposed by the union government, unpaid wages, and mandatory digitization that has excluded already poor and vulnerable workers from accessing the scheme and its benefits.
Known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the scheme was first introduced in 2005 and provides 100 days of guaranteed work in over 700 districts across rural India. MGNREGA has been a critical source of livelihood for millions of rural households across the country, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In December 2022, the Union Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) issued a notice for the compulsory use of the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS), an app-based attendance system requiring workers to upload two time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs a day, across all MGNREGA worksites starting January 1, 2023.
On January 30, the MoRD issued another notification, directing State governments that all payments under the MGNREGA be compulsorily made through a complicated Aadhaar (a biometric identification system) Based Payment System (ABPS), despite the fact that over 50% of MGNREGA workers would not be eligible to receive payments under the system.
Both measures were widely condemned by activists and civil society groups, with scheme workers themselves organizing protests in different States. Ostensibly introduced to combat corruption and increase efficiency, NMMS and ABPS have actually led to workers losing their already meager wages, due to problems including lack of mobile network connectivity in villages and glitches in the app itself.
Open Letter to the Ministry of Rural Development raising concerns about the ground realities of NREGA. The charter of demands has also been shared in this letter.#SaveNREGA#नरेगाबचाओ@RTF_DRRAA@roadscholarz@nikhilmkss@mkssindia pic.twitter.com/IoTaYaUKuF
— NREGA Sangharsh (@NREGA_Sangharsh) February 15, 2023
The sit-in protest was also called in response to the union budget for the 2023-24 financial year, which saw the share of MGNREGA allocation as a percentage of the GDP fall to its lowest level of just 0.19%, leaving only enough resources to generate an estimated 10 days of employment per household after accounting for persisting wage arrears.
As the workers continue their agitation in the national capital, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has refused to revoke the ABPS, and has not even acknowledged the protest.
Meanwhile, attempts by workers, campaigners, and the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha (a network of organizations coordinating the sit-in) to hold public discussions and protests have been repeatedly impeded.
On March 24, several students were detained and taken to the Cyber Cell at the Maurice Nagar police station after police disrupted a public discussion organized by students at the Arts Faculty of Delhi University, featuring speakers including noted economist and activist Jean Dreze, Richa Singh from the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, Comrade Somnath from the Jan Sangharsh Manch, and Sharada Gopal from the Jagrut Mahila Okkuta. Activists who had gone to support the students at the police station were also detained.
Delhi police abruptly stopped Jean Dreze, Richa Singh, Com. Somnath and students at Delhi University while conducting a program at DU Arts Faculty on the ongoing attack on NREGA by the central government. pic.twitter.com/7z84lHznT7
— NREGA Sangharsh (@NREGA_Sangharsh) March 24, 2023
“Do citizens not have the right to discuss a public issue in a public place? Why are students, activists, workers being detained for merely exercising their fundamental rights? This is an attack on the very idea of democracy,” the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha said in a statement.
The Morcha has submitted a charter of demands to the Indian government, reiterating that the app-based attendance system be scrapped and the scheme be de-linked from Aadhaar. Other demands include
include adequate funding for the MGNREGA to ensure that workers receive their wages within the stipulated 15-day period and be compensated for the full duration in case of delays. They have also demanded that wages be “immediately made at par with the states’ statutory minimum agricultural wages and rapidly move towards raising it to [INR] 800 (US$ 9.72) a day.”
The union government has notified a hike in wages ranging from around 2% up to 10% under the MGNREGA for the 2023-24FY. Set to take effect with the beginning of a new financial year on April 1, the state of Haryana will see the highest daily wage at INR357 (US$4.34), while workers in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh will have the lowest wages in the country at INR221 (US$2.69). While wages vary from state to state, the overall difference of a few rupees will do little to alleviate the distress of rural households.
“The demand to raise wages has been present since MGNREGA’s inception,” Neelam Gaur, a journalist who has been covering the protest in Delhi, told Peoples Dispatch. “The government has treated this as a survival scheme, instead of a proper employment guarantee scheme, a last resort for those who do not have an alternative source of livelihood. As such, the wages have remained extremely low.”
With the issue now gaining more attention due to the sit-in at Jantar Mantar, questions of the intentions behind the almost deliberate shortcomings of MGNREGA are being raised. “There seems to be a growing understanding that the end goal of basically finishing off the MGNREGA is to ultimately create cheap migrant labor for the cities,” Neelam said.
On March 25, a press conference was held at Jantar Mantar to mark one month of the sit-in.
“There were people from villages in the forest areas of Belgaum in the state of Karnataka. Historically, as people [mainly men] would migrate to cities to work, the women would be home. There were entire villages where there was an absence of men. After the MGNREGA came in, things became better, there were opportunities for work even for senior citizens, a means of survival”
“Now with the introduction of the ABPS and especially the NMMS [which has been in place for longer], migration out of these villages has started again, and very rapidly. It is very clear on the ground— the goal of the creation of cheap labor is already visible,” Neelam said.