After 47 days of their sit-in, government agrees to pay prevailing minimum wage

From a black Diwali to a colourful Id! For hundreds of labourers who sat on dharna from October 2 near the Statue Circle here to press their demand for minimum wages under the MNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), it was celebration time on Wednesday.

After 47 days of sit-in protest, which was preceded by a 16-day yatra across Rajasthan, the labourers and the activists who led them under the banner of Suchana Evum Rozgar Ka Abhiyan announced the agreement they reached with the State Government.

MNREGS workers in Rajasthan had skipped Diwali celebrations this time, and instead observed a “Black Diwali” at the protest site. Lucky this time, the negotiations with the State Government the previous evening ended in an agreement which legitimised a quickly coined slogan put across the dharna site: Id Mubarak, Jeet Mubarak!

“This is a historic victory though it took a few days to materialise. The Rajasthan government agreeing to pay the prevailing minimum wage in the State to those working under MNREGS would help the workers engaged in the job scheme all over the country,” said social activist Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the movement.

At least in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, the MNREGS labour has been demanding parity in prevailing minimum wage and the remuneration given in the job scheme. The State governments had a problem as the Centre made the payments for workers employed under MNREGS and there was a freeze on maximum wage at Rs.100 a day. “This may appear a paradox. As many as 19 States have minimum wages more than Rs.100 and MNREGS workers are being denied their legal entitlement,” Nikhil Dey of the Abhiyan said.

The dharna interestingly had supporters from all walks of life. National Advisory Council chairperson Sonia Gandhi herself wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on November 11 supporting the demand. In her 10-page note, Ms. Gandhi strongly recommended the payment of minimum wages to this category of workers. The Chief Ministers of both Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh also wrote to the Centre seeking early compliance of the demand. All three had also cited the recommendation of the country's 15 eminent jurists in this regard.

The agreement was signed after talks between a team of senior officials led by Chief Secretary S. Ahmed, Additional Chief Secretary (Finance) C.K. Mathew, Principal Secretary Rural Development C.S. Rajan, Principal Secretary, Labour and Employment Manohar Kant and MNREGS Commissioner Tanmay Kumar. The groups were represented by Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Renuka Pamecha, Shankar Singh and Prem Krishna Sharma.

“It is important that the Rajasthan government gave us a written undertaking on five of our demands, including linking of the MNREGA wages with price index. We are happy about this outcome as well as the general impact of the dharna, through which we could highlight the problems of the physically challenged, single women, nomads, Dalits, Adivasis and minorities, and issues like Right to Education,” said Mr. Dey.

The dharna brought before the public the stark contrast in payments to government employees and to the poor. Eminent persons, including writer activist Arundhati Roy, economists Jean Dreze and V.S. Vyas, Planning Commission Member Syeeda Hamid, senior journalist P. Sainath, leading lawyer Prashant Bhushan and social activists Annie Raja and Harsh Mandar visited the dharna site during the period.