By filing a Special Leave Petition against the Karnataka High Court order directing payment of statutory minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the United Progressive Alliance government has betrayed its insensitivity to the rights of the poor. The courts have ruled that payment below minimum wage amounts to “forced labour”, which is constitutionally prohibited. The Centre's implacable stand that workers employed under the scheme are not entitled to anything higher than the Rs.100 ceiling fixed by it smacks of perversity. Its position that the flagship rural employment scheme is de-linked from, and independent of, the minimum wages fixed by the respective State governments has been rejected not only by activists and economists, but also by the judiciary. Earlier, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had struck down the Centre's January 2009 notification freezing daily wages under the scheme at Rs.100. The Karnataka High Court has now not only ordered payment of the minimum wage fixed by the State government but also payment of arrears. While admitting the SLP — filed after objections from Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh were peremptorily overruled by the Prime Minister — the Supreme Court declined to stay the High Court direction although it afforded some relief by staying the payment of arrears.

At the same time, the apex court has offered some sage advice to the government, which claims it may have to bear an additional burden of Rs.1,472 crore annually, and settle arrears to the tune of Rs.7,472 crore: that the government should not appear to abrogate the rights of the workers in a scheme meant to benefit the country's poor and, instead, it must seek to harmonise MGNREGS with minimum wages. The massive employment guarantee scheme is, admittedly, being implemented with varying degrees of efficacy and usefulness. Ranging from complaints that not everyone is paid Rs.100 a day and that not all beneficiaries work to the same level of efficiency, to a widely reported grievance that the MGNREGS has adversely affected the availability of labour for farming, the scheme is not without its drawbacks or flaws. Yet, there can be little doubt that it has been a significant social intervention that has arrested distress-induced migration, provided succour to those living below meaningful subsistence levels, and has had a salutary effect on wage structures in other sectors. Instead of fighting the wage issue to the bitter end, the UPA should do the right thing and ensure that payments under the scheme fully conform to the prevailing law on minimum wages.

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