Revised ‘MGNREGS’ wages need revision to be a survival lifeline

It is commendable that those at the bottom of the stack will now earn more.

Published: 29th March 2023 01:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th March 2023 01:21 AM   |  A+A-


Image used for representational purpose only.

It is commendable that those at the bottom of the stack will now earn more. Farm labour under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has been given a wage hike of approximately 10.4% from April 1. Application by the states varies from Rs 26 to Rs 7 a day, with Haryana paying the highest at Rs 357 and Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the lowest at Rs 221 per day. Unfortunately, in as many as 18 states, even after the hike, the MGNREGS wages are lower than the old minimum agricultural wage scales. For instance, the notified minimum wage in Punjab is Rs 361, while the new MGNREGA is 16% lower at Rs 303 per day.

The government implemented the rural employment programme in 2005 to target rural distress by providing a minimum of 100 days of employment in a year. Despite all the corruption and leakages, it has served as a lifeline for rural households, and as many as 15.51 crore workers are registered under the scheme. When Covid-19 broke out in 2020, the scheme got a boost with the highest-ever budget of `1.11 lakh crore to provide survival wages to a record 11 crore workers. Despite this, in the 2022 winter session of Parliament, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman claimed the numbers for MGNREGS jobs had declined. However, the recent Economic Survey showed that by the end of January, as many as 6.5 crore households had plugged into the scheme, much higher than pre-pandemic levels.

In many ways, this reflects the increasing rural distress and poverty following the pandemic. Over the last seven years, demand for jobs under the MGNREGS has more than doubled—from 1.64 crore households demanding work in May 2015 to 3.07 crore in 2022. Given these facts, the rural development ministry has unfortunately pegged MGNREGS scales below the minimum notified rates for agricultural workers. Perhaps the ministry thinks the scheme, being a ‘distress’ lifeline, does not need to measure up to statutory standards. Nothing can be further from the truth. MGNREGS provides short-duration jobs mainly during the worst seasons of heat and drought and therefore needs to provision for more than just survival wages. The government must also examine whether payment below statutory minimum wages passes legal muster. Given the projections of a scorching summer around the corner, taking a fresh look at the MGNREGS scales may be necessary.

India Matters


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