Bench refuses to stay Karnataka High Court order
In a major setback to the UPA government at the Centre, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to stay the Karnataka High Court order for payment of minimum wages to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers and suggested that the government, instead of appearing adversarial, should resolve the issue through a consultative process.
The only relief the government secured was a stay on the payment of arrears to the workers as directed by the High Court on September 23.
Even as it admitted the Centre's special leave petition challenging the High Court order, a Bench of Justices Cyriac Joseph and Gyan Sudha Misra expected the government to resolve the issue in a consultative manner.
The Bench told the Solicitor-General, who appeared on behalf of the Union government, that the government should not appear to abrogate the rights of the workers in a scheme meant to benefit the country's poor and harmonise the MGNREGS with minimum wages in a manner where the State minimum wages would be respected.
Notice has been issued to all respondents returnable in two weeks. The Supreme Court will list the next date of hearing within three weeks.
The petitioners pointed out that at least three Supreme Court judgments had stated that non-payment of minimum wages was tantamount to forced labour.
MGNREGS wages are lower than minimum wages in at least 14 States as of now.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan leader Nikhil Dey maintained that in the light of the Supreme Court's order, the Centre was now required to pay minimum wages to MGNREGS workers in Karnataka with effect from September, 2011. The order would consequently impact the States where MGNREGS wages were less than the minimum wages.
Significantly, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, too, had proposed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the same line suggested by the Supreme Court. He had opposed challenging the High Court order.
The Prime Minister overruled Mr. Ramesh and directed him to file the SLP challenging the High Court order. He, however, allowed Mr. Ramesh to go ahead with his proposal to bring about the proposed amendments in the two laws for resolving the issue.
Dr. Singh told Mr. Ramesh that the MGNREGS wages were statutorily delinked and independent of minimum wages. But the Prime Minister underlined his commitment to pay a real wage of Rs. 100 to the MGNREGS workers by linking it to the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labourers (CPIAL).
The Prime Minister linked the MGNREGS wages with CPIAL in January 2011 as a conciliatory gesture after turning down the recommendation of the National Advisory Council chairperson Sonia Gandhi for payment of minimum wages to MGNREGS workers.
Aruna Roy writes to Manmohan
NAC member Aruna Roy too wrote to Dr. Singh on Saturday expressing her shock at his decision to challenge the High Court order and urged him to withdraw the SLP.
The additional burden on the Union Government on implementation of minimum wages at current levels would be about Rs. 1472 crore annually, while arrear payment of wages for 2008-09 to 2011-12 works out to Rs. 7472 crore.