Twenty four-year-old Sonu Salvi of Bhilwara district in Rajasthan aspires to be a teacher. She has just completed her Bachelors in Arts and is hoping to do Bachelors in Education next, except that she doesn’t know how to pay for her further education. She had been funding her studies through wages she earned as a ‘Mate’ or site supervisor under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). However, since December 2021, she hasn’t received her wages.
“I had to take a loan of ₹10,000 to pay the tuition fee for myself and my younger sister for the last year of BA course. I have forgotten the number of applications I have written and the several rounds of the panchayat office that I have made. Each time, I get a stock reply - “You will get the payment when Centre pays”,” Ms. Salvi said.
Ms. Salvi's example is just one of the many among the Mates in Rajasthan, whose wages have been inordinately delayed. Rajasthan is also not the only State to face this problem.
As per the MNREGA, the wages of unskilled workers is to be paid within 15 days and if there is a delay, the Centre has to compensate them. Mates - who are the front-line supervisors of the programmes - are listed as semi-skilled workers because of the specialist nature of their job. What should have been a leg-up for them has tragically ended up being a complication. Their wages come from the “material component”, 60% of which is paid by Union government. This component is now being released erratically, caught up in bureaucratic delays and chronic fund crunch.
“The programme’s success or failure depends on the Mates. They should undoubtedly be paid more for the work they do. Instead, of paying them the attention they deserve, they have been left on a limb. There is poor capacity building, poor supervision, and they are not provided a support structure”Nikhil DeyActivist
In the case of Rajasthan, as per K.K. Pathak, Secretary, Rural Development, it was only a fortnight back that the Union government cleared its dues. Importantly, this payment came after a gap of more than a year. The last tranche had arrived in April 2021.
The Mates in Rajasthan are paid only marginally more than the workers. While MNREGA workers get ₹231 per day, the Mates get ₹235. Unfortunately for those extra few rupees, Ms. Salvi and many like her have to wait endlessly for their wages.
In face of delayed wages, the women Mates have to tackle greater odds. Jamuna Devi, from village Barakhan in Ajmer District, said, “I have two children. When I go for work, I leave them with my mother-in-law. And when my wages are delayed, I have to also field taunts from my family. Why are you going to work if you do not get any money, they say.”
Listing in unskilled category
To deal with this systemic flaw in Chhattisgarh, the Mates are clubbed with unskilled labourers so that at least their wages aren't delayed. In Jharkhand, too, according to Siraj Dutta of MNREGA Sangarsh Morcha, the Mates, discouraged by the delay, have started listing themselves in the unskilled category.
In Karnataka, the State government has found a way around the problem. “We pay the Mates the same rates as the unskilled workers, but in addition to that they get incentive. A male Mate gets ₹4 and a female one ₹5 per worker they mobilised. This incentive comes from the material component, which is released when we get the funds from Centre. This way only a small part of their wages are delayed,” said L. K. Atheeq, Additional Chief Secretary, Rural Development & Panchayat Raj, at Government of Karnataka
Many states have petitioned to the Union government to find a permanent solution to this problem. “We have asked the Centre to de-link the wages for skilled and semi-skilled workers from the material component, so that they get paid on time,” Mr. Pathak added.
Mates are critical functionaries of the MNREGS, activist Nikhil Dey, said. “The programme's success or failure depends on the Mates. They should undoubtedly be paid more for the work they do. Instead, of paying them the attention they deserve, they have been left on a limb. There is poor capacity building, poor supervision, and they are not provided a support structure,” Mr. Dey added.