Jairam invites Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey for consultations

At the instance of the Supreme Court, the Union government has initiated steps for an out-of-the-court settlement of the controversy arising from non-payment of minimum wages to MGNREGS workers.

While admitting the Centre's special leave petition challenging the Karnataka High Court ruling in September for payment of minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme along with arrears, the Supreme Court, however, refused to stay the order. The only relief it provided was a stay on payment of wage arrears prior to the High Court order.

More importantly, the Supreme Court expressed the hope that the government would not appear adversarial and undertake a consultative process to harmonise MGNREGS wages with minimum wages so as to respect the state minimum wages for agricultural labour.

The Karnataka High Court had held unsustainable the Centre's power under the MGNREGA to notify a wage rate less than the minimum wages and quashed the wage rate notified in January 2009.

After revising the MGNREGS wage rate for the second time with effect from April 1, 2012, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has set the ball rolling to find an out-of-the-court solution to the problem. He has invited Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan leaders Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey for consultations.

Mr. Ramesh has decided to invite the petitioners who had knocked on the doors of the Karnataka High Court in the first place with an offer to settle the issue out of court. He gets elbow room for negotiations as the matter, which was to come up for hearing before the Supreme Court on April 9, has since been deferred to August 16.

On the advice of the Solicitor-General, Mr. Ramesh has decided to amend the MGNREGA alone without touching the Minimum Wages Act and remove the disparity between the two. Amending the MWA was considered a difficult proposition as it would require the consent of the States as well.

Even after the recent revision in the MGNREGS wage rate, it was less than the minimum wages in at least eight States. The hike was pitiable in Orissa, just a Re. 1. The additional burden on the government was estimated as Rs. 472 crore.

However, most States are yet to revise the minimum wages this year. When it is done, it is expected to once again widen the disparity with MGNREGS wages.

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