A public interest litigation petition has been filed in the Madras High Court Bench here to declare as unconstitutional Section 6 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) 2005 which empowers the Centre to fix wages for the employees without being bound by any provision of the Minimum Wages Act 1948.

R. Gandhi, a lawyer practising in the High Court Bench, had filed the petition. He claimed that Section 6 of the MGNREGA was ultra vires Articles 14 (State shall not deny any person equal protection of laws), 16 (equality of opportunity in matters of public employment) and 23 (prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour) of the Constitution.

According to the petitioner, the Parliament enacted MGNREGA to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed employment in a year to one member of every household in rural areas. Those employed under the Act were provided with unskilled manual work such as desilting water bodies, strengthening the bunds around them and raising roadside plantations.

Though the legislation was enacted with a laudable object, it was not right to have included Section 6 which provides unfettered powers to the Centre fix a wage that could even be lesser than what was prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act, the petitioner said. The only condition imposed under Section 6 was that the wage fixed by the Centre should not be less than Rs. 60 a day.

Wondering how someone could be paid less than the minimum wages prescribed by a statute, the petitioner pointed out that the Supreme Court in the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights case (1982) had held that the term ‘forced labour’ in Article 23 could not be confined only to physical or legal force. It would include force arising due to economic circumstances too.

“Thus even if a person voluntarily accepts work for which he is paid less than what has been notified as minimum wages, it is hit by the vice of forced labour and clearly violates Article 23 of the Constitution,” the petitioner said. He claimed that the government could not be allowed to fix wages at its will notwithstanding the prescriptions stipulated under the 1948 Act.

Mr. Gandhi also recalled that the Supreme Court in 1983 declared as unconstitutional the Famine Relief Works Employees (Exemption from labour laws) Act 1964 for the sole reason that it sought to exclude the applicability of Minimum Wages Act.

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