The Union Rural Development Ministry appears to have painted itself into a corner on the issue of paying minimum wages to workers employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS).

The ministry has so far insisted that it is not obliged to pay minimum wages to MNREGS workers. This despite an Andhra Pradesh High Court order requiring the government to pay them statutory minimum wages. In a further embarrassment last week, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) also expressed itself in favour of paying them statutory minimum wages. A discomfited Rural Development Minister C.P. Joshi told The Hindu that his ministry was awaiting a formal communication from the NAC.

Until last week, Dr. Joshi also claimed that his ministry was in the clear because the government had obtained a Supreme Court stay against the High Court order. He said this to The Hindu and repeated it on the television channel CNN-IBN.

The Hindu ran a check on the Supreme Court website which revealed no stay against the High Court order. Andhra Pradesh Commissioner for the MNREGS, S.S. Rawat, also said: “Our records show no Supreme Court stay.”

Confronted with all this, Dr. Joshi on Tuesday admitted that there was no Supreme Court stay and that the High Court order seeking enforcement of minimum wages was still in operation.

However, he disputed that the High Court order meant that the Centre had to pay the currently prevailing wages. “It has not specified any date,” he said, adding the Centre could pay wages that prevailed in 2006 when the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) came into force. Or it could even pay the minimum of Rs. 60 prescribed under Section 6(1) of the Act.

The Minister said he would like to wait for the final judgment of the High Court as its existing order was ambiguous about the Centre's powers to fix MNREGS wages.

On January 1, 2009, the ministry issued a notification under Section 6(1) of the MNREGA, delinking MNREGS wages from the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, and freezing the former at Rs.100. This led to a situation where MNREGS workers in a number of States were paid less than the prevailing minimum wages. Aggrieved by this, some labour groups moved the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which on July 3, 2009 suspended the Central notification and ordered payment of minimum wages as fixed by the State government.

But since MNREGS workers in Andhra Pradesh continued to be paid less than the prevailing minimum wages, the petitioners also filed contempt cases against the Central and State governments. Last week, labour groups in the State wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, the Congress chief and the Chief Minister protesting against the Union ministry's continuing violation of both the High Court order and the Minimum Wages Act.

The ministry's position has drawn strong reactions. Asked the former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, A.P. Shah: “Where is the rule of law if the government can so easily violate a court order? The government has been in contempt for more than one year, which virtually means that the common man has no legal remedy against the State.”

MNREGS activist Nikhil Dey said: “We are shocked at the ministry's anti-labour attitude and its brazen disrespect of the court and a statutory law held by the Supreme Court to be sacrosanct.”

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