Aruna Roy’s decision to terminate her relationship with the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council has returned the spotlight to the ideological divide within the ruling establishment on welfare spending. As the civil rights activist noted in her letter to the Congress president, the rupture came over the Manmohan Singh government’s refusal to pay statutory minimum wages to workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act — admittedly the largest rights-based safety net programme anywhere in the world. One of the first things the UPA government did upon earning a second term in 2009 was to acknowledge its debt to the aam aadmi by renaming the NREGA after Mahatma Gandhi. Yet in a monumental affront to the father of the nation, it declined to pay minimum wages to MGNREGA workers, arguing that the scheme was designed more as social security for the desperately poor than as regular employment requiring payment of floor-level wages. The government’s intransigence expectedly placed it in direct conflict with its own advisory body, with the battle being led by none other than Ms Gandhi.
Perhaps taking a cue from the Congress chief, some Congress State governments too have made bold to oppose the Centre’s line, indicating a deep government-party divide on the issue. However, more damagingly for the UPA government, at least two High Courts have held payment of minimum wages to be mandatory, which situation has not altered in view of the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the Karnataka High Court’s decision. As Ms Gandhi pointed out in her letter to the Prime Minister, the apex court had itself in an earlier judgment equated non-payment of minimum wages with “forced labour,” which was violative of an important Fundamental Right. A part of the problem stems from deficiencies within the job guarantee Act. Section 6(1) of the Act empowers the Central government to notify the wage rate independent of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. And yet, legal opinion in this country is near unanimous in defining minimum wage, not as a ‘fair and living’ wage but as the minimum required for bare subsistence. So when the government nitpicks on giving out even the minimum, it places itself in opposition to the poor and needy, who ironically form the Congress’s core constituency. MGNREGA has not just been life-giving, it has generated employment, halted distress migration and bonded labour and raised wage levels in the private sector where exploitation of workers is rampant. The government should look beyond the immediate to long-term economic benefits from going robustly ahead with the landmark programme.