Hari of Housr village of Pattikonda mandal, Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh, has been a worker enrolled under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme (NREGA) for eight years, he is now a leader of NREGA workers group in his village.”Everyone says we should maintain social distancing but we haven't been able to find work for the past 15 to 20 days, Everyone is at home and there is no money for day to day expenses, nobody has started NREGA work in our mandal, workers are asking what else can they do in the present situation,” he asks.
Though that's the case in Hari's village, across the state of Andhra Pradesh, 1.97 lakh NREGA job cardholders have shown up for work in April. Though Panchayat Raj department officials say that under normal circumstances, 15 to 17 lakh job cardholders turn up every day, this number is still a concern as the safety of these workers is at peril now.
With harvesting season over and farm work drying up, the workers are keenly awaiting for the NREGA work to commence. The works that should have begun in March is yet to begin across several districts in Andhra Pradesh, say those closely working with the workers. However, despite lockdown and calls for physical distancing, many are turning up for work as only those who report to work will be paid by the state. Neither the Centre nor the state has given relaxation to NREGA workers to receive wages despite being absent.
Fear of COVID-19 spread
“In my village, those who work under NREGA are all are people who depend on daily wages for a living, we want the work to begin this week,” says Hari but officials have been dragging their feet, as they are unable to figure out how social distancing measures could be put in place.
“Authorities are not saying anything, it’s like they are scared if the work is started the disease will spread and things will go out of control, so they are not coming forward. They are neither encouraging nor saying don't do work. Because to get to the work site people will have to travel by tractor, so the disease might spread and they are avoiding even talking about it. If there is no work, the workers might be forced to migrate or go elsewhere for work. We will be talking to them this week about starting the work,” says Hari.
The central government on Sunday released Rs 2,150 crore to Andhra Pradesh to carry out NREGA works. Panchayat Raj department Additional Commissioner for NREGA, Balasubramaniyam says this amount would be sufficient to pay the Rs 456 crore pending dues to the workers and sustain payment for their work for the coming months.”I will have Rs 1,800 crore leftover which is sufficient to pay wages for the next two to three months,” he adds.
To work or not to work?
Chakradhar Buddha, program manager, with Libtech India, a group of team of engineers, social workers and social scientists working with tribals in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana says, “NREGA workers are in dire straits. If they go to work they are carrying the risk of COVID spread and if they don't they will lose their NREGA quota of 100 days. In this context, the Centre should instruct states to shutdown NREGA works and pay the workers for the missing days of work. NREGA workdays need to be increased to 200 days for the year 2020-21,”
The Ministry of Labour on March 20 had issued directions to all chief secretaries of state and union territories stating that all workers be paid full wages even if they are absent from work. On March 29 the National Disaster Management Authority had also directed all employers to ensure full payments to all workers on the duty without any deductions. However, these instructions do not apply to NREGA workers, point out the state official.
“There are no instructions to stop the NREGA work. As per the NREGA Act, no authorities have the power to stop the work, no one can stop it. Whoever demands work, we have to provide. Only the Centre is authorized to say if the work should be stopped or not,” said Balasubramaniam.
Soon after the 21-day lockdown was imposed, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court of India by activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey calling for uniform guidelines across states and union territories concerning NREGA workers. The petition sought to ensure all active and registered job cardholders under NREGA are paid full wages and deemed to be at work. The petitioners point out the as NREGA work largely involves construction which entails passing of material from one person to another it making social distancing impossible to observe. The petition is likely to be listed on April 7, reported livelaw.in.
The Andhra Pradesh official insists that social distancing measures are being followed at places where the NREGA work is presently ongoing in the state, “We are getting reports from the ground that they are maintaining social distance. In the rural area, they are taking their precautions and not allowing outsiders and doing work within their gram panchayat. They take all precautions,” Balasubramaniam insists.
The wage hoax
On March 27 Nirmala Sitaraman the Union Finance Minister announced Rs 17,000 lakh crore as a relief measure to ease the financial burden caused by COVID-19. The relief mesure for NREGA workers was a Rs 20 hike in the wages.
This so-called relief wage hike for the NREGA workers was in fact part of a yearly routine wage hike at the Ministry of Rural Development. The ministry had issued a notification announcing the wage hike on March 23 (like it did the year before and the year before that).
“NREGA workers got an empty vessel by the Finance Minister in the relief package. The wage hike is a hoax. No mention of an increase in workdays, no shutdown of works, no advance payment of wages etc.” says Chakradhar.
In Andhra Pradesh, the wage was hiked from Rs 211 to Rs 237 for the year 2020- 21, an increase of Rs 26. The year before the wage rate was hiked by just Rs 6.
(With inputs from Jahnavi Reddy )