Going against the view of the United Progressive Alliance government, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) has favoured the payment of statutory minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS).
The NAC's line is in conflict with the January 1, 2009 notification issued by the Union Ministry of Rural Development, delinking the MNREGS wages from The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, and freezing the former at Rs.100.
The notification, issued under Section 6(1) of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, led to a situation where MNREGS workers in several States were paid less than the prevailing minimum wages.
In its defence, the Ministry quoted Section 6(1): “Notwithstanding anything contained in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Central government may, by notification, specify the wage rate for the purpose of the Act.”
The NAC's contrarian position follows a recommendation made by the Aruna Roy-headed working group on ‘Transparency, Accountability and Governance.' A posting on the NAC website said: “There was general agreement on the recommendations of the working group. There was general agreement that workers should be paid minimum wages as notified under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.”
Aggrieved by the Ministry's January 1, 2009 notification, some labour groups in Andhra Pradesh took the issue of non-payment of minimum wages to the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The petitioners said the non-payment amounted to a violation of the fundamental rights of workers.
In July 2009, the High Court suspended the Ministry's notification for a period of eight weeks. But since MNREGS workers in Andhra Pradesh continued to be paid less than the prevailing minimum wages, the petitioners filed a contempt petition against the State and Central governments.
The cases, which came up for hearing on Thursday, have been adjourned by another 10 days. So far, the Centre's stand has been that while the State government is obliged to pay minimum wages as notified by it, the Centre will only reimburse the amount fixed by it under Section 6(1).
The State governments have disputed this, arguing that they have no money, and that under the MNREGA, the wage component has to be paid by the Centre.
Union Minister for Rural Development C.P. Joshi refused to comment on the NAC's view saying it had not been put up to him. He said the Supreme Court had stayed the suspension order of the Andhra Pradesh High Court.