The Centre is likely to pay minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in compliance with the recent Karnataka High Court ruling upholding the supremacy of the Minimum Wages Act (MWA) over the MGNREGA.
Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh has taken a decision favouring payment of minimum wages for agricultural workers as notified by the States as MGNREGA wages. He told The Hindu on Sunday that he was intent on finding a political and administrative solution to the problem rather than go on appeal against the court ruling.
Mr. Ramesh said the NREGA wages should not be lower than the minimum wages as was the case in six States currently and expressed confidence about winning over the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister this time round to accept the proposal that the National Advisory Council (NAC) under Sonia Gandhi had recommended in November 2010.
The Prime Minister had turned down Ms. Gandhi's proposal but increased NREGA wages in January by linking it to the Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labour thereby delinking NREGA wage rate from agricultural minimum wage.
The Karnataka High Court ruled that Section 6 (1) of the NREGA could not be invoked to fix wage rate lower than what was prescribed under the MWA, 1948 and quashed the government notification on wage rate of January 2009 and ordered payment of arrears to the workers in Karnataka.
Special piece of law
Stressing that the MWA was a special piece of legislation and had to take precedence over the NREGA, which it regarded as a general legislation, the court ruled that payment of wages lower than the minimum wages would violate Articles 14 (equality) and 23 (prevention of forced labour) of the Constitution.
Mr. Ramesh said the payment of arrears was “not appealing” to him as the additional financial burden worked to Rs. 1,800 crore for the two years — 2009-10 and 2010-11 — in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Kerala, Goa and Mizoram. He said he would find a political solution to the entire problem in consultation with the NAC.
While allowing minimum wages for NREGA workers, Mr. Ramesh proposed that it be added to Part II of the Schedule of the MWA for fixation and revision of minimum wages in the Central sphere to safeguard against any arbitrary increase in minimum wages by the States as the nature of work was not limited to agriculture but also covered watershed development, irrigation, civil work, and road construction.
As per his proposal, the wages would be revised annually indexed to inflation and a full revision would be effected every five years in consultation with the States.