100 Lawyers and Law Professionals from across India endorse demand to immediate disbursal of wages pending for two years to NREGA workers in West Bengal, with full compensation & resumption of work.
Groundxero | 3rd February, 2024
The Union Government has stopped funding for NREGA in West Bengal since 9th March, 2022, based on allegations of corruption in the implementation of the scheme. The total pending wages is to the tune of Rs. 2,600/- crores, and an amount of Rs. 3,000 /- to Rs. 8,000 /- is due to each worker on an average in West Bengal.
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. Thousands of NREGA workers in West Bengal have waited long enough for their rightful dues. 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 West Bengal, with little result thus far.
100 Lawyers and Law Professionals from across India have endorsed the NREGA workers demand for immediate disbursal of wages pending for two years to NREGA workers in West Bengal, with full compensation & resumption of work. In a letter by NAJAR Justice Forum to the Ministry of Rural Development, Govt. of India, the lawyers and law professionals have expressed deep concern over the Union Government’s unreasonable 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.
The letter by NAJAR Justice Forum to the MoRD stated, “the need to investigate 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.”
The lawyers and law professionals endorsed the letter stating that NREGA is a matter of right as the State is under an obligation to provide employment for workers from rural areas by empowering workers to demand and secure work and timely wages on the strength of legal entitlement. The letter called the decision by the union government to withhold funds for such a prolonged period, withholding of wages for work already done and non-resumption of work, as not only grossly violative of the very spirit of the Act but also a direct attack on the constitutional and human rights of the workers.
The lawyers and law professionals said that the prolonged freeze on fund-release by the Union government is a blatant violation of the spirit of Section 3 of the NREGA Act which mandates wage payment to be made within 7 days and in any case, not beyond 15 days. The punitive step is also against the directions and guidelines issued by the Supreme Court. The letter gave reference to the case of Swaraj Abhiyan, in which the Supreme Court has categorically stated 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.”
The letter by NAJAR Justice Forum pointed out 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; and 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. Therefore, such prolonged stoppage of fund-release entitles the workers to receive unemployment allowance under the NREGA Act, said the letter.
A delegation of NAJAR has interacted with affected villagers / workers, including several impacted women workers. It narrated the adverse impact of the Union government’s decision:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Against this deeply disturbing backdrop, NAJAR appealed to the Union Government to immediately release pending wages to the tune of Rs 2,600/- crores in West Bengal without further delay, along with the rightful and full compensation (and unemployment allowance) for the prolonged wait.
NAJAR urged that the Union government must immediately reconsider its unreasonable and punitive decision of stopping funds for no fault of bonafide workers. It said that any inquiry into corruption allegations must be completely independent of timely wage payments to workers, as per requirements of the NREGA Act.
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, asked the letter by NAJAR?
100 Law Professionals from across India endorse the letter by NAJAR Justice Forum (NAPM) to @MoRD_GoI seeking immediate disbursal of wages pending for two years to NREGA workers in West Bengal, with full compensation & resumption of work. pic.twitter.com/aAlL8gcFCk
— @najarjusticeforum (@najarjustice) January 29, 2024
National Alliance for Justice, Accountability and Rights (NAJAR), is an All-India initiative of NAPM, collectivizing progressive legal professionals for democratic causes and in solidarity with people’s movements.