Workers and supporters of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA or NREGA) from across the country have gathered at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar under the banner of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha to protest against the alleged violations of the Act.
The protest, which started on February 13, calls for the scrapping of NMMP (National Mobile Monitoring Software) app attendance, adequate funding, and timely payment of wages, among others.
Protestors here say that they are organising a 100-day protest, where workers from different states will join. NREGA workers from Bihar participated in the protest for 10 days (February 13 – 23) and those from West Bengal joined it on February 24.
Sandeep Singha, state assistant secretary of NREGA West Bengal, said, “We couldn’t get NREGA work from December 26, 2021. We have protested at the block, district, and state level and are protesting here now. This is a 100-day protest which could be extended. Following the workers of Bihar, we are protesting here from February 24 and will continue till March 4.”
The protest was temporarily suspended due to Holi and Thursday onwards workers from Jharkhand are expected to join, he added.
“Why do labourers suffer in the fights between the Central and state governments? Our first demand is that pending payment should be cleared immediately along with late compensation. And the government should increase the number of workdays from 100 to 200 days. Current wages should also be increased from Rs 223 to Rs 600. We need a proper guarantee of work and pay. It’s our fundamental right,” he said.
It is noted that the NREGA Act assures payments within 15 days of work completion. The Minister of State for Rural Development, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, said in December 2022 that as per the provisions mentioned in Schedule-II of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, wage seekers shall be entitled to receive payment of compensation for the delay beyond the sixteenth day of closure of muster roll.
Sadanand Mehto, 45, who belongs to Purulia district, West Bengal, said, “I worked 40 days under NREGA in a pond but my wages are still pending. We also want our wages to increase because of inflation. Our wages are Rs 223, while basic amenities like mustard oil have gone up to Rs 250 per kg.”
Member of Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity, Sanjay Kumar, who is also an NREGA worker, spoke on similar lines.
“The attendance system was made mandatory from January 2023 without a pilot study. It has, since then, faced many technical issues. The NMMS app attendance system is also a problem for us. We punched in and out but our attendance was not counted many times due to technical glitches. A full day of hard work was wasted!” Mehto rues.
However, the ministry had stated after the announcement of Budget 2022-23 that all wages under MGNREGA had been paid on time and that the National Mobile Monitoring Software (NMMS) was working smoothly and the technical issues were being resolved, with no major issues reported in NMMS’s implementation.
Slogans such as ‘Hum sab ek hain’, ‘NREGA sangharsh morcha zindabad’ were raised at the protest. As the dharna starts at 10 am and continues till 4 pm, workers stay in an ashram in Geeta Colony during the night.
Manju Sregaya, 62, came from West Bengal’s North-24 Pargana along with 80 others.
“We have not found work for the last 14 months and this is affecting our life. The central government said that the state government is not implementing the scheme fairly, while the state government blames the Centre for the NREGA fund. We labourers are suffering in the middle of this tussle. Our children are also suffering,” she told Patriot.
Vineet, a spokesperson of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, said on stage, “This system [NMMS attendance] will kill NREGA. The government slashed the NREGA budget. This is a threat to all state workers.”
Ashtomi Oram, 32, from Malda district of West Bengal, left her husband and three children at home to join the protest.
“Even though my job card was made two months ago, I couldn’t get a single day’s work. My husband goes to other cities like Chennai and Hyderabad to make a living. This would not happen if we had NREGA work. Now, we make bidis at home, which is not enough. They pay us Rs 140 for 1000 bidis; we make 500 bidis after working a full day. My three children study in a government school because we cannot afford private education. Chah kar bhi private main nahi padha sakte. (We cannot send them to a private school even if we want),” she said.
Many young workers from West Bengal are also participating in the protest.
Bolai Roy, 26, who is a graduate of Netaji Subhash University, said, “I worked 25 days in NREGA in 2021, but my wages have still not been paid. When I went to the block for my payment, they said that the government did not send funds. My family of five members survive by working on agricultural land and we are facing problems.”
People from Delhi are also participating in the protest as a show of solidarity.
Nancy Pathak, who is associated with NGO Pension Parishad, was encouraging the workers at the site.
“We came here for the solidarity of workers. Because they are outsiders, they also need support from Delhi’s people. Even in a city like Delhi, we face connectivity problems, so we can imagine what must be the scenario in rural areas with NMMS attendance. Apps like NMMS also need an android phone, which is unaffordable for most labourers,” she says.
“The government is implementing an Aadhar-based payment system. More than 50% of workers will be affected by Aadhar-related problems. It is also reducing the NREGA budget. While Rs 14000 crore wages are pending already, how can they reduce the budget?” she asked.
NREGA Sangharsh Morcha alleged that the claims of the government about the smooth functioning of the scheme were false and misleading.
“While MGNREGA used to have a positive impact, it has now become fruitless and exploitative, where workers who have put in honest hard work, have to wait for their wages endlessly. In such a situation, there is a need to firm up NREGA implementation and end systematic corruption to ensure that workers get their basic NREGA entitlements like timely payment of wages, work on demand, compensation for late payment, unemployment allowance,” it said in a statement.
Earlier, a delegation of Bihar workers met with the officer of the Ministry of Rural Development and also sent a letter to National Human Rights Commission India (NHRC). NHRC promised to raise the issue with authorities.