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Tensions rise over caste split of MGNREGA wages

Concerns have been raised by grassroots activists and union leaders in a number of States including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu after a Central directive to split MGNREGA budget for wage payments along caste lines. File   | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ B

For poor villagers in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, a good Diwali depends on their wages from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, so tensions were high when some got paid faster than others for work done over the last six months..

“These are people who did the work together, at the same worksite, under the same mistri, for the same number of days. They were all on the same muster roll. But those from SC/ST [Scheduled Castes and Tribes] got paid within 15-20 days. Those from other communities had to wait two months,” said Karthik Singh, a coordinator with the Rajasthan Asangathit Mazdoor Union.

Tensions rise over caste split of MGNREGA wages
 

“This caused a lot of worry that there was some gadbad (mess-up), and created suspicions and tensions among the villagers. When Diwali is coming, how can anyone buy what is needed unless the money comes on time? Panchayat officials say they have submitted the details for everyone, but the order to split the payments by caste has come from higher up, so they cannot do anything.”

Similar concerns have been raised by grassroots activists and union leaders in a number of States including Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu after a Central directive to split MGNREGA budget for wage payments along caste lines was issued on March 2.

Threat to harmony

At a meeting with the Finance Secretary and Rural Development Ministry officials on October 11, the Social Justice Ministry and several State governments warned of “dissension”, “backlash” and threats to social harmony in villages being caused by the directive.

“A decision was then taken to go back to a single muster and payment system,” said one of the officials who attended the meeting. State government officials also said they had been informally assured that the directive would be revoked.

However, no such order has been issued as yet, and a statement from the Rural Development Ministry on Saturday only said the system was being streamlined.

“The category wise (SC, ST and Others) wage payment system, as made applicable from this current financial year, has been introduced to accurately reflect on the ground flow of funds to various population groups. Its further streamlining is being undertaken,” it said.

SC payments favoured

An analysis of 18 lakh fund transfer order transactions from 10 States between April and September by researchers from LibTech India showed that SC workers in most States were getting paid significantly faster than others.

“Under the MGNREGA law, once the fund transfer order is approved, the Centre should take no longer than seven days to sign the payment order and credit the bank accounts of workers. The Centre transferred money to 46% of SC workers within the mandated seven days, while 80% got paid within 15 days after FTO approval. However, among non-SC/ST workers, only 26% were paid within seven days, and 51% were paid within 15 days,” explained Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor at Azim Premji University who led the LibTech research. “It goes against the universality of the MGNREGA scheme.”

In Jharkhand, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, the gap was even more stark. In M.P., for instance, money was transferred within the mandated seven days for about half of SC and ST workers, but only 7% of workers from other communities. In Chhattisgarh, it was ST workers who got paid much faster than others.

On the other hand, the Social Justice Ministry received complaints from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana that it was payments for SC workers which were being delayed, “creating dissensions in village communities”.

A senior official in Tamil Nadu also said the Rural Development Department had received multiple complaints from SC representatives that their wages came later than others in June, the first time payment was made after the Central directive was implemented.

The Karnataka government wrote to the Centre last month, noting that the SC account received funds six times during a period when funds were not received at all for the other two categories although wage demand was generated across categories, adding that field level officials were unable to provide any explanation to those left bereft.

Cohesion at stake

Abhay Kumar, a leader of the Grameen Coolie Karmikara Sangathane, a union of 2.5 lakh MGNREGA workers in Karnataka, has seen the devastating impact on the ground.

“For years, we have seen that MGNREGA workers unions help to remove casteism, as women workers work together, and so start to socialise with each other across communities. But after this order, there is a backlash and divisions are coming back,” he said, noting that SC workers were getting paid earlier in about 80% cases.

“Earlier, they used the word ‘we’, saying ‘we are fighting for our wages’. Now it has gone back to ‘ours versus theirs’. This kind of language signifies a very harmful and dangerous change in our communities,” he warned.


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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 12:35:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tensions-rise-over-caste-split-of-mgnrega-wages/article37270794.ece

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