Noted economist and member of the National Advisory Council (NAC) Jean Dreze has asked the authorities to protect the right of MNRGES workers to minimum wages. The present situation in which the workers were paid a maximum of Rs.100 against the newly revised minimum wage of Rs.135 for other workers in Rajasthan was “legally untenable,” he said. “The recent NAC meeting had recommended payment of minimum wages to NREGS workers,” he pointed out.

“The expert opinion confirms that minimum wage is relevant in the case of MNREGS workers as well and as an emergency move to avoid illegal non-payment of minimum wages the Government invoke the provisions of Section 6.2 of the NREG Act 2005,” Prof. Dreze, who was here to lend moral support to the indefinite dharna in the Rajasthan capital demanding minimum wages, said. The previous evening he had joined the workers who observed a “Black Diwali” to protest against the indifference of the authorities to their demand.

“The Centre can disburse a whopping Rs. 5 lakh crore as subsidy to industrialists but they get diffident when it comes to payment of even a fraction of that amount to enhance the wages of MNREGS workers,” Prof. Dreze said, addressing the gathering on Saturday. He expressed concern over the increasing gap between the rich and the poor in India. The Andhra Pradesh High Court, in its order, had directed the State government there to pay wages as per the provisions of 6.2 of the Act, he noted.

Under NREG Act 2005, Section 6(2) said: Until such time as a wage rate is fixed by the Central Government in respect of any area in the State, the minimum wage fixed by the State Government under Section 3 of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, for agricultural labourers, shall be considered as the wage rate applicable to that area.

Talking to The Hindu, Prof. Dreze said the MNREGS wage, frozen at Rs.100 in January 2009 invoking the provision under Section 6(1) of the Act, was not the real wage as per the price index. Under the Act the payment is done by the Centre but who is making the payment is not the concern of the workers, he argued.

“As for the workers, they are entitled to minimum wages, irrespective of, who is paying. They have a right to protect their rights and that is why they are here on a dharna,” Prof. Dreze, who is the chairperson of the Working Group on Minimum Wages constituted by the Central Employment Guarantee Council, said.

“It is shocking when the authorities are not willing to consider a revision of poor workers' wages even as they hike the salaries of the government employees and enhance the allowances and perks of MPs and MLAs,” he argued. Prof. Dreze said those working under the job scheme were the only ones in the country who did not have any protection.

It was unfortunate that the MNREGS was being “misused” to undermine the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act. “In fact MNREGA is a fantastic opportunity to reactivate the minimum wages,” Prof. Dreze said, pointing out that even the talk about minimum wages in the past five years was the result of the introduction of the job scheme.

Keywords: MNREGS