More than 300 rural families employed in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme in Jharkhand's Latehar, one of India's poorest districts, have donated their small annual wage increase to prime minister Narendra Modi. The workers attached five rupee notes to a letter addressed to the prime minister that was posted on May Day.
“The government must be really short of money if it is unable to raise NREGA wages to the minimum wage, that too when one third of the rural population is affected by drought,” reads the letter by the workers, noting that the central government had increased their wage this year by only Rs 5, from Rs 162 to Rs 167 earlier in April. This is Rs 45 below the state minimum wage Rs 212 per day in Jharkhand.
There are over 1.1 lakh families in Latehar district working in the scheme under which the government provides 100 days of employment a year to any rural household willing to do manual work – building public works such as roads, ponds, wells. Of this, 43% are women, and 37% are tribals.
Beginning with Manika block on May 1, workers in eight other administrative blocks in the interior, forested district will send similar letters to the prime minister throughout May to protest being paid less than minimum wages under the central government jobs scheme.
The ministry of rural development notified revised wage rates on March 29 this year, making the Scheme wage Rs 167 per day in Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattigarh.
In Jharkhand and Bihar, the wage rates were revised from Rs 162 to Rs 167, an increase of Rs 5, and in MP and Chhatigarh which had the lowest MNREGS wage rates, it was increased from Rs 159 to Rs 167, an increase of just Rs 8 a day.
In Odisha, the workers' wages have not been revised at all, a fact that the workers alluded to in their letter: “It sounds like NREGA workers in Odisha are now considered very well-off because their wages have not increased at all.”
James Herenj, an activist with Narega Sahayata Kendra in Manika in Latehar said that the government was insensitive to rural poor's difficulties. “The government does not pay even pay minimum wage, nor is it giving work within 15 days as the law requires.” He said while this year, the increase was Rs 5, last year it was even lower at Rs 4, while before that in 2014, it had been Rs 20. “There is no logic to how they are revising the wage rates, at least not in terms of the real conditions of a harsh drought that is prevailing here,” Herenj added.
Shayama Singh, a tribal MNREGS worker and Narega Kendra volunteer in Latehar said workers from 17 villages had gathered to protest the measly increase in wages. “Workers are very angry,” said Singh. “We do difficult manual work, yet the government thinks it fit to increase our wages only by Rs 5, while giving massive pay increases to officials.”
A committee headed by economist Mahendra Dev on the revision of rural job scheme wage rates in 2014 had recommended that workers should be paid at least the state minimum wage. The report is yet to be implemented.
The central government revises wage rates annually as per the consumer price index for agricultural labourers of the states concerned, which tracks the changes in retail prices of goods and services consumed by agricultural workers in a state. But development economists have pointed out that indexing MNREG wages to a price level may not be adequate and may lead to MNREGS wages falling far behind the legal minimum wages, the effect of which is borne by the poorest rural workers.
Here is the full text of the letter.
1 May 2016
Shri Narendra Modi
Prime Minister of India
Dear Prime Minister,
This year your government has increased the wages of NREGA workers in Jharkhand by five rupees (from Rs 162 per day to Rs 167 per day). We feel very lucky, because in 17 states the increase was even less. It sounds like NREGA workers in Odisha are now considered very well-off because their wages have not increased at all.
Actually, we are very concerned. The government must be really short of money if it is unable to raise NREGA wages to the minimum wage, that too when one third of the rural population is affected by drought. (For your kind information, the minimum wage in Jharkhand is Rs 212 per day.)
We feel that you need the extra five rupees more than we do, since your government has so many expenses. To implement the recommendations of the Seventh Pay Commission, you will have to spend an additional Rs 1 lakh crore at least on salaries and pensions of government employees. Defence expenditure is about Rs 2.5 lakh crore. You must also be spending a lot of money on tax concessions for big companies, aside from giving them cheap land and other resources.
Considering all this, we NREGA workers have made a collective decision to give up our extra wages for a day and return the extra five rupees to you. We hope that this will help you to keep your corporate friends and government employees happy.
Your faithful workers,
Job Card No