The Centre has asked the States to split wage payments under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme into separate categories for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and others from this financial year. Workers’ rights advocates said this will unnecessarily complicate the payment system, and expressed fears that it may lead to a reduction in scheme funding.
“Government of India has decided to provide separate budget heads for SC and ST categories under MGNREGS from the financial year 2021-22 for wage payment. The existing system for wages under the scheme is for only one type that is there is no category wise provision of wage payment,” said the advisory sent by Rural Development Ministry Director Dharmvir Jha to all State governments on March 2. The Hindu has seen a copy of the advisory, which does not include any rationale for the new procedure.
A video conference was held with State representatives to lay out the new process in March. One of the participants said that States were asked to verify if job cards for SC and ST beneficiaries were being properly allocated at the field level. They were told they would be given fund allocations according to this criteria, indicating that labour budgets would also be segregated on a caste basis.
“The Ministry may be thinking that this allocation is all being taken by the general category people, so they want to segregate based on the population of the district. And even the projection is done like that. Government thought: ‘Why not take exclusive allocation for SC and ST?’” said the State representative, who did not wish to be named.
“These new modalities are bound to create complications in a payment system that is actually begging to be simplified,” said a statement by the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha.
“All NREGA workers have the same rights. Segregating them into three groups for purposes of budgeting and wage payments serves no purpose,” it added.
Some activists expressed the fear that the reform is meant to reduce funding.
In its statement, the Morcha noted that there is some inbuilt positive discrimination in the scheme, reflected in the fact that more than 50% of workers are women and almost 40% are SC/ST. However, it felt that the proposed reform would not help SC/ST workers, but would expose all workers to further uncertainties as the system struggles with changes.
An analysis of wage payments in Jharkhand in April and May by LibTech India found no differences in the time taken to pay SC/ST workers and others, indicating that there was no benefit for marginalised communities under the new system. However, it found that the Centre took 26 days to pay workers even after States generated fund transfer orders, as opposed to the stipulated seven-day period.