Bardha Girdhar had to wait more than six months to get Rs 2,976 he had earned for digging trenches in Nandurbar. A farmer who own a patch of land of a little over two acres in the district, Giridhar spends some part of the year growing jowar and urad dal. But in the months when there is no rain to irrigate this land, he seeks out other work.

In February, Giridhar took up work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA, in the hope of bringing home some food, and buying seeds and agricultural tools. In Nandurbar, demand for MGNREGA work typically spikes around the summer season, since many farmers cannot irrigate their land.

For 12 days, Giridhar worked to create continuous contour trenches – pits on the slopes of hills that store some rainwater and create a channel for the rest to flow. For each day of work, he was assured a payment of Rs 248.

But the money did not come.

MGNREGA assures every rural household a minimum of 100 days of unskilled labour work a year. As per the law, the wage, which varies from state to state, has to be credited in the worker’s bank account within 15 days of the completion of the work. If payments come late, a worker has to be compensated with interest at 0.05% of the unpaid wages per day for the period of the delay.

Girdhar said that he had faced late payments in the past too, but that this time, the delay was prolonged. “Since no money came from the first work, I did not take up any more work,” he said.

He added that he had never been paid interest for delayed payments.

With no money coming in, in May, Girdhar took a loan of Rs 30,000 from a local lender. Now, to repay it, he plans to migrate out of Nandurbar in search of labour work. “Maybe to sugarcane farms,” he said.

Stories like Girdhar’s, of workers forced to migrate because of unpaid wages, are common across Nandurbar this year.

Khardi hamlet, where Girdhar lives, has between 100 and 130 households, and a total population of 786. At least 72 people from the hamlet worked under MGNREGA this February. But, according to a letter that workers wrote to the tehsildar of Akrani, who oversees Khardi, as of August wages were yet to be credited in the bank accounts of 66 people. That is, around half the households had been hurt by the delays.

Members of many of these families plan to migrate to other places in search of work at the end of October, after Diwali, by which time rains will cease and harvesting of major crops will be finished.

Labourers from Khardi who worked under MGNREGA this February. Picture courtesy: Chetan Salve

Across India, wage payments of Rs 2,982 crore under MGNREGA remain pending for this financial year, said Vijay Ram S, a member of the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, a group of activists and academics that monitors the implementation of the act. “State checks muster roll, makes calculations, and then sends a request for fund release under MGNREGA to the Centre,” Ram said. “The Centre then releases the fund. The delay is majorly by the Centre.”

According to an official in the Nandurbar district collector’s office who asked to remain unidentified, across the district, Rs 7 crore of wages remained pending under MGNREGA up to the end of August.

Ram noted that delays have always been common, and that labourers typically receive wages two or three months late. But delays beyond that “will of course impact the purpose of MGNREGA and participation in it”, he said.

Diminishing funds

The problem isn’t just that those who get work under MGNREGA are not getting paid on time, but that many who want work are not finding it. This lack of work has its roots in the government’s insufficient allocation of funds to the programme. A report by the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee in July noted that there was an “inadequacy of funds in the context of high demand for employment”.

“The government is steadily reducing expenditure and allocation of money towards MGNREGA,” said Nikhil Dey, founder member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

This is apparent from a comparison of budgetary allocations between 2020-’21 and this year. In 2020-’21, the government initially allocated Rs 61,500 crore to MGNREGA. But in light of the economic distress faced through the pandemic by rural people, who were forced to return to their native villages during the lockdown, the government announced an additional package of Rs 40,000 crore in May 2020. This took the total budget to Rs 1.01 lakh crore.

“Even that got exhausted,” said Dey. “People did come to work when provided with opportunity.” The budget for 2020-’21 eventually rose to Rs 1,11,500 crore.

The next year, 2021-’22, despite having witnessed a high demand for work, the government initially allocated Rs 73,000 crore to the programme, a 34% decline from previous year’s revised estimate. The revised budget finally rose to Rs 98,000 crore.

This year, the government once again allocated Rs 73,000 crore to the programme. Dey noted that when deciding allocations, inflation has to be factored in. “But between 2021-’22 and 2022-’23, the allocated budget remains the same,” he said. “It should increase if inflation is factored.” Further, the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee report notes, a significant chunk of the money, Rs 11,464 crore, was spent up to July 31 to clear payments pending from the previous year.

While the revised budget for this year is yet to be announced, officials in Nandurbar have found themselves strapped for funds. As a result, the district official said, “we have to constantly ask the state for funds and we have to reduce job-works allotted, because we are not sure whether we will be able to pay the labourers”.

The tehsildar of Akrani, Gyaneshwar Sapkale, said he had spoken to state officials about the problem of the pending wages of Khardi labourers. “There is a crunch,” he told in the first week of September. The district official added that while payments are released directly by the state and the Centre, his office processes the paperwork and so receives complaints from vendors and workers when payments get delayed.

The official in the district collector’s office also noted that both the state and Centre were aware of the funding problems. “We have been told the process to clear dues will be started soon,” he said.

But workers are disappointed by the lack of work and the delayed wages. The People’s Action for Employment Guarantee report stated that one out of every five households in India that had demanded work in the four months between April and July had not got it.

Bardha Girdhar (first from left) worked under MGNREGA for 12 days this year, for which he was to be paid Rs 2,976. The money did not arrive for more than six months.

In Khardi, workers recounted that opportunities were abundant in 2020-’21. They worked on tree plantation sites, did drainage work and road work, and dug continuous contour trenches. Chetan Salve, of the NGO Narmada Bachao Andolan, said this encouraged residents to continue staying in Nandurbar.

Among those in Khardi who worked under MGNREGA this year was Muna Vasant Pawara, who is 31 and who lives with three children, his wife and his mother. He is the family’s sole earning member. He explained that before the pandemic, he would migrate every year to the town of Shahada, 60 km away, for construction work. This paid Rs 200 per day.

But he noted that migrant workers like him found it “expensive to spend on food and shelter elsewhere”. Work under MGNREGA paid better and was more convenient. “If the work is steady, I would prefer to stay home and work here,” he said.

Given the delays in MGNREGA payments, however, he estimated that 80% of people from his village are likely to migrate for work this year.

Demand remains high

According to Central government data, work assigned under MGNREGA fell between May and August this year. While 44 million workers were assigned work in May, 25 million were assigned work in July and 19.3 million in August.

Since, technically, the government is supposed to generate work based on demand, many argue that a fall in MGNREGA numbers suggests an increased stability in the rural job market.

But others argue that this decline does not indicate a more stable rural economy: as stories like Girdhar’s suggest, workers also stop seeking work because of unpaid dues. Dey noted that the demand for MGNREGA work was, in fact, high this year. But “when the funds run low, the government starts rationing and slows down allocation of job works, and then they say the demand has reduced”, he said.

He added, “A person who depends on daily wages is not going to return to work next time if he is not paid. When survival is an issue, these labourers won’t wait for payment for months.”

Ramdas Pawara, a resident of Khardi, said that residents need to have confidence in the system. “If 100 days are guaranteed, then we should get 100 days of employment without repeatedly going to the tehsildar’s office,” he said.

The lack of smooth work allocation under MGNREGA has forced him to seek work elsewhere, Pawara said.

The risk of malnutrition

Like Girdhar, 33-year-old Saili Pawara, a mother of four, also had to take a loan because of delayed wages. She and her husband also worked on the hills of Khardi to dig trenches in February. For 12 days of work under MGNREGA, their wages totalled Rs 5,952, enough to feed their family of seven for a month.

“But when no money came, we took a loan of Rs 25,000 from the bachat gat,” she said, referring to a self-help group. “There was no other work anywhere.”

To repay this loan, after Diwali this year, she, her husband and their children will travel to Shahada to work on a farmer’s cotton field.

This forced migration will take a toll on the children: currently, two of them go to a local anganwadi, where they get free meals to improve their nutritional intake. “My children cannot go to school if we take them along,” Saili Pawara said.

Ravi Duggal, a health and finance policy expert who has conducted research in Nandurbar, said that he had found a direct correlation between migration and malnutrition. “If people have access to employment guarantee schemes in summer months, in those villages we won’t find high level of malnourishment,” Duggal said.

The official in the district collector’s office said that the government was aware of the looming problem of malnutrition, and had planned to generate jobs this February so that people would not migrate.

Ter Singh Pawara, aged 45, described a similar ordeal. He, too, did not get his wages of Rs 2,976 for trench-digging work he undertook in February.

After failing to find any other work, or someone locally to borrow money from, he contacted a sugarcane cultivator in Pandharpur, in Solapur district, over 600 km away, for a loan of Rs 30,000.

When payment did not come in for many months for MGNREGA work he did in February, Ter Singh Pawara borrowed Rs 30,000 from a sugarcane cultivator in Pandharpur, over 600 km away.

In return, Ter Singh Pawara and his wife will work on the cultivator’s land for free for five months, in effect being paid Rs 100 per day each. This will go towards repaying the loan. Sometimes, he said, a creditor “says we haven’t worked enough or cut enough sugarcane and claims that some amount of the loan is still due. We end up borrowing again to pay him.”

On Friday evening, the Nandurbar collector’s office informed that the government had released wages into the accounts of Khardi’s workers on Thursday. But as of Friday evening, at least 10 workers checked their accounts and confirmed to that they had not received their wages. Twenty-five, including Bardha Girdhar, confirmed that they had received money in their accounts, but that they hadn’t received the additional interest as compensation for the delayed payments.

The remaining residents were yet to check their accounts.

This article will be updated as more information is received.