The United Progressive Alliance government's decision to challenge the Karnataka High Court's ruling on payment of minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act came under attack from the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), the body that governs the programme.

And Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh has warned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the “atmospherics associated with filing of a special leave petition [in the Supreme Court] will go against us.”

At a 150-minute deliberation of the CEGC, most of the members insisted on the meeting adopting a resolution against the filing of a special leave petition, stressing that it was the Ministry's duty to protect the rights of the workers. But Mr. Ramesh prevailed upon them, saying he, too, was working to ensure minimum wages.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) leader Nikhil Dey and Kastkari Sangathan general secretary Pradeep Prabhu, both CEGC members, said none present at the meeting, Planning Commission member Mihir Shah included, favoured the litigation route that the government had taken at the behest of the Prime Minister.

Mr. Dey made clear that he had nothing personal against Mr. Ramesh but was opposed to the government's decision to challenge such a straightforward judgment. Mr. Ramesh assured them that he was not actually challenging the ruling but was trying to find a way out.

Mr. Prabhu said the MGNREGA should not be seen as a wage-related programme but as one meant to build the country, and the need was to ensure that it was not misused to depress wage rates across the sectors.

Mr. Dey said he would wait for the petition to be filed on January 3 to know its contents and resolved to be a party to fight for the rights of the workers.

On the other hand, Mr. Ramesh wrote back to the Prime Minister, stressing that he was opposed to any legal challenge, in the light of the opinion of the Attorney-General, the Additional Solicitor-General and National Advisory Council chairperson Sonia Gandhi that the workers should be paid minimum wages. He reiterated that his suggestion that the Minimum Wages Act and the MGNREGA be amended was a superior option to moving the Supreme Court. He acknowledged that he had given the go-ahead for filing of the petition, but ensured that its tone was not over-confrontationist. In conclusion, he warned that “the atmospherics associated with filing of the petition would go against us.”

The implementation of minimum wages at the current rates and the current person-days will mean an additional burden of Rs.1,472 crore on the government a year, while the payment of wage arrears from 2008-09 to 2011-12 will amount to Rs.7,472 crore.

Sources said Dr. Singh, in his letter to Mr. Ramesh, pointed out that the MGNREGA wages were statutorily delinked and independent of minimum wages, but that the government was committed to protecting a real wage of Rs.100 as announced in the Union budget. Accordingly, it decided to index the MGNREGA wage rates with the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labour, while maintaining the distinction between the notified wage rate under the MGNREGA and the Minimum Wages Act.

Dr. Singh said Mr. Ramesh's suggestion to amend the Acts should be considered only after the special leave petition was filed.

Pointing to a case filed in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the Prime Minister highlighted the need to ensure that the order of that court did not become absolute without the government being able to consider the matter from all aspects.

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