After 16 days of intensive Statewide campaigning and 47 days of dharna, thousands of workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in Rajasthan scored a significant victory. Led by the Suchana Evum Rozgar Ka Abhiyan, they entered into an agreement with the State government under which they would be entitled to the prevailing minimum wage for their day's work. Describing this outcome as “historic,” social activist Aruna Roy, who led the movement, predicted that the accord would help workers in other States win the same benefits.
Under the MGNREGS launched in 2006, the government guaranteed 100 days of work a year and fixed a daily wage of Rs. 100 or less, depending on the quantum and quality of work done. It was seen as an anomaly, because in at least 19 States the minimum wages currently paid to regular workers in other spheres was a good deal more than Rs. 100 a day. In other words, MGNREGS workers are denied their legal entailment.
In Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, where the minimum wages fixed for workers employed in other industries and establishments is above Rs.100, MGNREGS workers began demanding a higher wage. The two Chief Ministers took the issue to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Social activists, including writer Arundhati Roy and economist Jean Dreze, backed the workers' demand; the latter, in fact, demanded that MGNREGS workers' wages should be linked to the Consumer Price Index. Former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, M.S. Venkatachaliah and J.S. Verma, and former Supreme Court Judges, V.R. Krishna Iyer, P.B. Sawant, and K. Ramaswamy pressed for the revocation of the “unconstitutional” notification issued by the government bypassing the minimum wages law. Sonia Gandhi, Congress President and chairperson of the National Advisory Council, wrote to the Prime Minister on November 11 strongly recommending that payment of minimum wages should be ensured to all MGNREGS workers.
It is heartening that these combined efforts of workers, social campaigners, Chief Ministers, the leader of the party heading the coalition at the Centre, and jurists succeeded in forcing the Rajasthan government to agree to do the decent thing. It is clearly not enough for wages under a vital scheme to be corrected in one State. The Central government, which pays for the scheme, should see that the change covers the whole of India. Linking the wage to the consumer price index has become crucial, in the context of the sharp rise in the prices of many essentials.
Protecting this attempt at providing a social safety net across the length and breadth of rural India has become an imperative. Unfortunately, given the Central government's half-hearted commitment to the scheme and its failure to put in place an efficient and clean administration, credible charges of corruption have emerged, which has only encouraged opponents and ill-wishers of the scheme to intensify their ideological offensive against a welfare state. There have been complaints from a section of rural people against both the workers and officials. While officials have generally been accused of indulging in corrupt practices, the workers have been frequently charged with inefficiency and evasion of work. All this is fodder to those who have been saying all along that the state should not get into this area at all.
Interestingly, a recent report of the International Labour Organisation, the “World Social Security Report,” released a few days ago, has noted that the effects of labour-oriented schemes such as MGNREGS and health insurance cover for 300 million people were yet to be captured. Pointing out that a social security programme must cover good health care, pensions, social assistance, and unemployment benefits, the report notes that many of these benefits are extremely limited in India with the vast majority of the population ineligible for these benefits.
All this shows that whether it is protecting food security or livelihood for the masses of the people, rising India trails far behind many other countries, developed as well as developing.
In recent years, the news media, both the press and news television, have provided a reasonable measure of coverage to these issues; and in the case of newspapers like The Hindu, this coverage has been sustained. A section of the news media continues to highlight and advocate the virtues of MGNREGS where it is well administered. It is unlikely that the prolonged agitation of the Rajasthan workers would have succeeded in the absence of factual and supportive news media coverage. But relevant and socially responsible journalism needs to aim higher. It should raise the level and quality of coverage of the gamut of social security issues. By providing more detailed factual information, by critically investigating the working of the scheme in different States, including the corruption and inefficiency of the administration, and by consciously taking up an agenda-building role in support of good social programmes, the media can make a real difference to the challenge of tackling mass deprivation across the land.