Over 50 buses carrying thousands of beneficiaries of the Centre’s flagship schemes for rural jobs and housing left Kolkata for the national capital on Saturday, to protest the Union governent’s “denial of funds” for these welfare schemes in West Bengal.
Beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) began trickling into Kolkata from remote parts of the State in groups of 10 or 12, as early as September 28, hoping to take a train to Delhi from Kolkata. But late on September 29, with the the Eastern Railway denying the Trinamool Congress’ request for a special train, the gathered people had little option but to travel by bus.
‘MGNREGA wages essential’
“I am a little scared, but we will have to go to Delhi for our rights. The 100 days work is essential for our survival,” said Bullet Mahato from Ranibandh panchayat. Along with a group of 11 others, Mr. Mahato had come to the Netaji Indoor Stadium in the early hours of September 21.
All the beneficiaries from Holudkanai village in Ranibandh have worked under MGNREGA scheme in December 2021, but are yet to get paid for their work. They said that since December 2021, the scheme has come to a halt, which means that each family member is missing out on about ₹8,000 to ₹10,000 of earnings per year.
Another group of beneficiaries who arrived at Kolkata’s Netaji Indoor stadium from Goalpokhar in the Uttar Dinajpur district of northern Bengal said that more people have become dependent on agricultural labour after the freezing of funds for MGNREGA.
“We don’t know who is responsible for the stoppage of funds. All we could say is that we are under distress,” Majibur Rahaman from the Malkunda gram panchayat said.
TMC stokes protest
Thousands had gathered at the stadium by the afternoon of September 29. Some carried flags of the ruling Trinamool Congress, tucked carefully into their luggage. The TMC’s leaders, including party spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, and State Ministers Sashi Panja and Partha Bhowmick came to the auditorium and addressed the media. After the special train was denied, TMC general secretary Abhishek Banerjee also arrived at the venue and met the gathered people.
On Saturday, Mr. Banerjee issued a video statement emphasising the amount of funds withheld by the Union government. “Since December 2021, BJP stopped our rightful dues, wherein they owe us nearly ₹7,000 crore under MGNREGA and ₹8,200 crore under Awas Yojana. Under this, nearly ₹3,000 crore meant solely for the wages of our MGNREGA labourers have been withheld,” the TMC leader said.
The idea of taking protestors to Delhi over the denial of central funds was raised by party chairperson Mamata Banerjee and Mr. Banerjee at the party’s annual July 21 meeting. Since the Chief Minister has been advised by doctors to rest after her trip to Spain, her nephew is likely to lead the protest in Delhi.
On October 2, which is the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Trinamool MPs and State Ministers will stage a peaceful sit-in protest at Rajghat. The scheme beneficiaries will go to Jantar Mantar at 11 a.m. on October 3 and hold protests there.
The Trinamool leadership is also leaving no stone unturned to highlight the protests before its electorate in West Bengal, and has decided that the October 3 protest will be “telecast live in all panchayats either by the panchayat pradhans or the anchal presidents”.
Protests over the denial of wages under MGNREGA were also organised by civil rights organisations like Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity in February this year.
Political observers describe the protest as a unique phenomenon in West Bengal politics, where the State’s ruling party is taking thousands of protesters about 1,500 km from Kolkata to Delhi, only to make a political point. The timing of the protests, ahead of Lok Sabha election, also assume significance.
Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University, said that the protest in Delhi highlighted the ‘relentless effort’ on the part of the Trinamool to build a narrative before the people of West Bengal that schemes like MGNREGA have come to a halt because of the BJP government at the Centre.
“This will help the Trinamool to mobilise the voters ahead of Lok Sabha polls,” Prof. Chakraborty said.
A section of Trinamool leaders said that the protests are also taking place despite many odds, including the Enforcement Directorate’s summons to Mr. Banerjee to appear before it on the very day of the protests, as well as the denial of a train to ferry party supporters to the capital.