Twenty years ago, Sudhir Murmu, 55, worked in his paddy fields during the day and ran tuition classes for children in the evening. The yield from the fields was scant, so were the earnings from his classes.

In 2006, life took a turn for the better for the agricultural labourer from Manbazar village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, when his family got a job card from the local block development office.

The card promised that Murmu, his wife and two daughters would be allotted 100 days of work every year under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or MGNREGA.

“With that money, I was able to send my daughters to school and then college,” Murmu told Scroll.

The rural job guarantee scheme, which was launched in 2005, is one of India’s biggest social security programmes. It enables households in rural India to demand work, which officials of the rural development department are bound to provide.

In the last two years, however, Murmu has barely earned any money from the scheme. He has spent his savings to make his ends meet. “I am struggling to even buy oil and soap,” he said.

The payments began drying up in December 2021, when the Centre stopped allocating funds for works under MGNREGA to West Bengal, claiming that there was rampant corruption in the programme in the state.

The move has left the state’s 1.3 crore MGNREGA workers effectively jobless.

The West Bengal government headed by Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee has claimed that the Centre owes the state Rs 7,000 crore in MGNREGA dues. Of this, said Anuradha Talwar, an activist for NREGA workers’ rights, unpaid wages add up to Rs 2,800 crore.

Murmu said that workers like him have been protesting for the last 18 months demanding release of their wages. “The government owes me Rs 17,000 for the work that I have done in the winter of 2021-22,” he said. “Whenever we approach the block officer or the district commissioner, they say our demands are genuine but they have no funds to pay us,” he said.

Like Murmu, Mujibur Rehman, a 44-year-old worker of Alipore area of South 24 Parganas district, is struggling to make ends meet. He is the lone breadwinner in a family of eight. “Since the funds were stopped, my family has become dependent on my brothers. There is no work in our area,” he said.

Last Sunday, leaders of the Trinamool Congress bussed in hundreds of MGNREGA workers, including Murmu and Rehman, from different parts of the state and held demonstrations in the national capital, demanding the release of funds for the state. On Monday, the workers, a few Trinamool Congress parliamentarians, state legislators and party leaders held a sit-in at Raj Ghat.

Rehman, who was part of the demonstration, told Scroll that he was hopeful that the Centre would “feel the pain of the workers” and resolve the matter.

On Tuesday, around a dozen workers led by the party general secretary Abhishek Banerjee protested at the Krishi Bhavan after the Union minister of state Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti refused to meet them. That evening, the police forcely removed the Trinamool Congress leaders and detained them for three hours. In response, the West Bengal CM said it was “a dark, sinister day for democracy”.

Sudhir Murmu was in Delhi to demand the wages due to him. Credit: Zafar Aafaq.

‘A surge in distress migration’

In July 2022, a report by a fact-finding team of activists associated with workers’ unions found that the Centre’s decision to stop wages has impacted food security in rural West Bengal. “They (MGNREGA workers) often have to skip meals due to lack of resources,” the report said.

Workers’ rights activists say that since the funds were stalled, the migration of people from West Bengal in search of a livelihood to states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat has gone up sharply. “I know five people who left the village and are now working in cities like Chennai, Ahmadabad, Surat,” said Murmu.

The fact-finding team, too, found a surge in distress migration, increased unemployment among rural women workers who cannot migrate for work, and workers agreeing to work in difficult conditions and at lower wages.

“People are suffering acutely. Unemployment and poverty is growing,” said Anuradha Talwar, who heads the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity. “There is great economic distress in families that were dependent on MGNREGA.”

A meeting of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha in Delhi. Credit: Zafar Aafaq.

Paying a price for political tussle

Activists like Talwar say that the workers are paying the price of the political tussle between the BJP at the Centre and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

In September 2022, the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity petitioned the Kolkata High Court seeking orders for release of pending wages and new funds. The High Court ordered the district commissioners of the state to look into the demands.

In May this year, the organisation again approached the high court with a fresh petition but similar demands.

On June 6, the state government submitted a letter from the Centre, dated March 9, 2022, explaining why it had stalled the funds to the state. The letter cited Section 27 of the NREGA Act, which empowers the Centre to block funds if a state fails to implement the scheme or if there are complaints of misuse of funds.

Leaders of the Trinamool Congress protest in Delhi against the Centre's decision to block MNREGA funds. Credit: PTI.

The Centre accused the West Bengal government of failing to comply with directives for the effective implementation of the scheme. For instance, the letter says that the state government’s January 2021 Action Taken Report was found “unsatisfactory”.

But activists like Talwar say that the Centre’s reasoning was flawed. If there was corruption, she said, the government should investigate and punish guilty officials and politicians. “Instead, the workers are getting punished. Their wages are pending while no district magistrate or Block Development Officer has faced any consequences” she said.

“While Section 27 empowers the Centre to stop funds, it also puts a statutory obligation on it to initiate investigation and take appropriate remedial measures,” said Purbayan Chakraborty, the lawyer representing the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity in the High Court. “Therefore, our argument is that you put the culprits behind bars. But the workers’ wages cannot be indefinitely withheld.”

Talwar also criticised the Mamata Banerjee government. “Everyone in rural areas of Bengal says the Trinamool Congress is corrupt. They have to put their house in order,’” she said.

The West Bengal government claims that it has tried to help the MGNREGA workers by providing them works funded by the state exchequer.

In August, the state’s panchayats and rural development minister Pradip Mazumdar claimed in the Assembly that the state government has provided employment to over 24.27 lakh card holders and paid over Rs 1,562.38 crore as wages between April and August 8.

But activist Talwar questioned these claims, saying that workers have not received any benefits. “We have not seen any NREGA job holders getting benefits under any state-run scheme,” she said.

‘An experiment to wind up MNREGA’

This week, Talwar attended a two-day convention of a coalition of workers’ rights organisations under the umbrella of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha in New Delhi.

The activists and workers expressed concern over the alleged efforts of the Modi government to undermine the programme. The blocking of funds to West Bengal, they said, is a part of those efforts.

“The West Bengal [fund blockade] is an experiment that will be repeated in other states. The Modi government is intent on winding up MGNREGA,” said Talwar.

The activists pointed to budget cuts, inordinate delays in wage payments and arbitrary use of technology for attendance and wage payment by the Centre to argue that it was throttling the programme.

For the 2023-25 financial year, Rs 60,000 crore has been allocated to MGNREGA despite pre-budget estimates coming up to Rs 89,400 crore, a press statement by the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha said. “This is a mere 0.198% of GDP – the lowest ever in the history of the scheme.”