Despite neglect and suppression, MGNREGA workers continue month-long protest in Delhi

Workers demand abolition of app-based attendance and oppose budget cuts


April 10, 2023

/ By / New Delhi

Despite neglect and suppression, MGNREGA workers continue month-long protest in Delhi

MGNREGA workers have been protesting at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi for over a month now

In Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, a protest led by women workers has shed light on the plight of MGNREGA workers all over the country. Every day, protesters from different states flock to the Jantar Mantar to protest in turns. The demonstration began with a request to repeal the app-based attendance system, the Aadhar-based payment system.

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For over a month now, a group of women, hailing from various parts of the country, have been taking turns to stage a protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Every morning, a fresh team, normally from a different state, comes to replace their colleagues who sat on the protest the previous day.

The protest has largely remained invisible in the mainstream media, just as the workers themselves have been for many years. These are the workers of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a national social security net aimed to help the poorest sections of the Indian society in rural areas.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), passed by the Parliament in 2005, guarantees 100 days of paid work to all adults in rural India and has been a critical, if not the only, source of income for tens of millions of rural households. It became even more significant during the Covid-19 pandemic, when most of the migrant workers had left cities to go back home in villages.

One of the key demands of the protesting workers relates to a new attendance system that the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) which is the implementing agency of the MGREGS that makes it mandatory for all workers to use the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS), an app-based system that the workers are supposed to use and which would also serve as the basis of their payment. The new rule also says that workers at all the sites must also upload two time-stamped and geo-tagged photographs, starting from January 1, 2023.

The workers immediately opposed the new rules, when they were proposed in December last year, mainly because of technical problems like poor network, problems in biometric recognition of the person as well and in accessing the ministry’s server, where all the data is meant to be stored.

When the government did not pay heed to these concerns, which have also plagued the unique ID system, Aadhar, in January, 2023, the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, a collective of MGNREGS beneficiaries, launched an indefinite protest, seeking a recall of the new rules. Renu Patel, a 31 year-old resident of Kapsethi village in Varanasi district is one of the affected workers and she has travelled to Jantar Mantar, along with her 13 year-old daughter, to join the protest.

Patel says that even though she diligently turns up for work every day and on time, her attendance is often not recorded. “Whenever we go to register our attendance, the operator says that the server of the portal is down, therefore our attendance is not registered, and therefore we don’t get paid for the work we do,’’ Patel tells Media India Group.

Patel is not the only one facing this problem. Many other MNREGS workers also have the same story to recount and say that irrespective of where they are located, they are often unable to register their attendance. They say that it has become a nationwide problem.

Urmila Devi is a 45-year-old homemaker from Jaunpur district in Uttar Pradesh, who also works under MGNREGS to supplement the meagre household income. Devi says that even without the pay cuts, she had long struggled for basic necessities. “I can hardly manage getting food for my children and now this online system has ruined our work. I do my work on time and when it does not get registered, it goes off as unpaid labour. We were certainly better off with the offline system,” Devi tells Media India Group.

The other main demand of the protesting workers relates to the budgetary cuts imposed by the government, especially this year on the total budget outlay for the scheme. In the budget for the current fiscal, 2023-24, that was passed last week without a discussion in the Lok Sabha, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has cut the amount allocated to MGNREGS to INR 600 billion, a drop of about 18 pc. The drop becomes even sharper when compared to the amounts allocated in preceding years.

In 2020-2021, the allocation for MGNREGS had flared to a record high level of INR 1150 billion. This exceptional spike was largely due to the forced return of hundreds of millions of migrant workers to their villages, who had been locked out of their jobs due to the unplanned and chaotic lockdown imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a knee-jerk response to the perceived threats of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In 2021-2022, even though the nation had continued to reel under the Covid-19 impact and unemployment, along with inflation, was soaring to record highs, the MNGREGS budget was cut to INR 980 billion, which fell further to INR 730 billion in the last fiscal, which ended on March 31, 2023.

The workers say that the continued slashing of the budget and other policies of the government have made it more difficult for them to take advantage of the programme, which is their sole source of livelihood today. Despite meetings with ministry officials, the workers state that no solutions have been proposed. 

“The government is systematically trying to dismantle NREGA,’’ alleges Patel. The workers’ allegations are not devoid of truth. Even before he took over Prime Minister in 2014, Modi had been sharply critical of MGNREGA, launched by his predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005, and which had propelled Congress to a second consecutive win in Parliamentary elections in 2009.

Despite their efforts to hold public discussions and a peaceful protest, the workers say that they have faced repeated obstruction. On March 24, police disrupted a public discussion and detained several workers. 

But fortunately for the workers, their protest has not gone unnoticed in the Parliament. As the protest entered its 40th day DMK MP Kanimozhi and RJD MP Manoj Jha extended their support to the protesters, calling for the new system to be rolled back.

Kanimozhi, who chairs the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, has said that she would invite the protesting workers to appear before the committee to discuss their concerns.

For many workers, MGNREGA is their lifeline and the sole reason to stay in their villages, and they fear they will have to again migrate to cities in search of work if the problems with the programme persist. “If we do not get work and timely payments through NREGA, we will have to leave our villages and come to cities in search of work. We cannot let our children starve in villages,” says Devi.

But for now, they remain adamant and determined to win the battle and are not considering going back home empty-handed. “Until the government listens to us, we will occupy this place, and we will keep coming here in batches if need be,” says Devi.



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