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On 24th March 2020, India went on a complete lockdown for 21 days, a step taken under Section 6(2)(i) of the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, giving the National Disaster Management Authority, the power to lay down policies on disaster management. On April 14, the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced the extension of the country wide lockdown till May 3 and said that some limited relaxations may be given in certain areas after April 20, where the infection spread graph is comparatively low.
This article looks into the effect of the national lockdown on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (hereinafter referred to as MGNREGA), which is a government scheme that provides a legal guarantee of paid employment to all the applicants. MGNREGA was enforced in order to reduce rural poverty through giving 100 days of guaranteed employment per year. This Scheme adopts a unique rights‐based approach in guarantying employment to reduce income and food insecurity in rural areas. It aims at providing financial security and enhancing purchasing power of rural households. Given the wide coverage of this policy and the impact it has on rural citizens, it can be said that MGNREGA plays a crucial role in affecting the macro-economics of the labour industry and in rural development. Therefore, it becomes important to ensure that the households that are dependent on the Schemefor their sustenance, particularly in the lean summer months, are taken care of during this crisis.
The Path to Relief and Complications
Resumption of Work
Section 3(1) of the act obligates the state to provide unskilled manual work to every household in all rural areas such identified, for not less than 100 days of such work in a financial year. In situations of a lockdown, it is, however, difficult to provide employment to such workers, as most of the work simply cannot be done from home. Moreover, a large gathering, at a time like this, can prove fatal, as there is no possibility of preventing physical contact during work.
However on April 15, the centre gave a green flag for resumption of work under the scheme from April 20, to help the rural poor. Now the challenge that arises is to ensure that strict implementation of social distancing is undertaken to check the spread of virus in rural areas. It puts the onus on the government to provide for masks, gloves and sanitizers to these workers and ensure proper hygiene is maintained at worksites and further provide advance healthcare facilities to them. The Centre can appoint a supervisor for some combined work sites, who can make sure that such norms are followed. Another challenge that comes up is that the government can employ only a few numbers of workers at a time to check overcrowding of the worksites. This begs to ask the question that how will the government choose who to employ, amidst the limited work opportunities. Many people will still, in fact, remain unemployed and continue to suffer and thus, makes us wonder whether such resumption of work will really be that beneficial for rural poor or not.
These challenges and questions need to be catered to by the Central government as per the specific needs and requirements of each state as in the past few days, workers have migrated across the country in desperate need for work or to return to their home, due to which the demographic composition of the workers in different states has changed. Some states, like Tamil Nadu, Punjab and J&K have already given orders and advisories for resumption of work.
Under Section 3(2) of the Act, every person who has done the work under the scheme is entitled to receive wages for each day of work. Further, the disbursement of daily wages is to be made on a weekly basis or in any case not later than a fortnight after the date of completion of such work. However, due to the lockdown, many workers were not able to receive their wages and they remained pending. Therefore, the government had to take steps to ensure that such pending wages are given, even though there is a complete lockdown, simply because the workers are legally entitled to receive these wages.
Centre had earlier released Rs. 4,431 crore to pay all the dues to the workers, promising to transfer the funds directly into the beneficiaries’ bank accounts. As of 14th April, the government announced that it has transferred the due cash in the accounts of poor across the country during the lockdown and has cleared all pending payments of beneficiaries under the employment guarantee scheme, to ease the troubles faced by them. The plight of the workers, however, who do not have any pending dues, but are still dependent on the scheme for survival, remains uncertain.
Moreover, it is important to note that although the government announced that pending dues have been cleared, with the banking and correspondent services being shut, the workers are unable to collect these payments and are still suffering. Multiple issues such as mismatch of beneficiary account details, non-upgradation of KYC, have become a hurdle in transferring of wages for many workers. Given this, the government should ensure that cash reaches the doorsteps of these workers which can be accomplished with the help of village volunteers.
Another important thing to note is that under Section 7(1) of the Act, if an applicant under the Scheme is not provided employment within fifteen days of the receipt of his application, he is entitled to an ‘unemployment allowance’per day, until he reaches his quota of 100 days. Now, many workers who had applied for work for the days which constituted the lockdown period (i.e. days after March 24) to reach their quota, were unable to work and had to miss these days of employment due to the lockdown. They are thus, under the law, entitled to receive an unemployment allowance for the days that they missed and as of now, the government has not provided the workers with any such allowance, and is yet to decide on the matter.
Central and State Reliefs
Now, the Central Government did announce a Rs. 1.70 Lakh Crore relief package under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), to mitigate the loss faced by the poor, which includes MGNREGA workers as well. Under PMGKY, MNREGA wages will be increased by Rs 20 with effect from April 1, providing an additional annual benefit of Rs. 2000 to every worker. However, this increase is not enough to serve to the needs of the beneficiaries because firstly, this benefit would accrue to them only if an employee gets a full 100 days of employment in a financial year, which the workers don’t ever reach in reality, which now will become even more difficult with the unceasing lockdown. Secondly, the Ministry of Rural Development revises the NREGA wage rates every year as per the revised consumer price index for agricultural labour. However, no such revision was done this year. So, the Rs. 20 increase, under PMGKY, is equivalent to the increase to fight annual adjustment for inflation. But since most of the commercial activity in the country is halted, the daily wage labourers or the people working on short-term contracts will be hit the hardest. The wage labourers will barely have any work other than the employment scheme as their primary source of income. This wage increase of Rs. 20 is simply not sufficient to fight both the annual inflation and the economic recession after this global pandemic.
Relief for MGNREGA workers also comes from state governments such as in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and many more in form of ‘special allowances’, distribution of medical kits medical kits containing soap, sanitizer and mask, and spraying disinfectant in villages. The Centre government should urge the other states to take such steps and ensure transparency and effective communication between the centre and the states.
Taking a Legal Recourse
To seek relief for the plight of the workers, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed before the Supreme Court, seeking a direction to the Centre to pay full wages to the MGNREGA registered households for the entire period of the lockdown on a time rate basis. It sought protection of the fundamental right to health and livelihood, as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, of over 7.6 crore active job cardholders under the scheme.
It seeks that the Centre issues uniform guidelines to all the States/Union Territories to deem all the registered job cardholders to be at work during the whole lockdown and accordingly make full payment of their wages. It also proposed to the Centre to increase the guaranteed 100 days of work to 200 days per household to fight the emerging economic crisis.
It further opposes the Centre’s order of allowance of work under the scheme, since it is “arbitrary and violative” of Article 14 of the Constitution. MGNREGA work largely entails construction work, during which physical distancing is not possible to observe and can become a serious health hazard. As the MGNREGA workers had to continue their work while the other non-essential workers could protect themselves by practicing social distancing, this creates an evident inequality between the two.
In response to the PIL, the government released a status report, asserting that different reliefs are provided to the MGNREGA workers as well as other entitlements to the poor, which are duly addressed by the State governments. Although the response ignored some of the issues stated such as violation of the workers’ rights on resumption of work, it still provided us with a list of reliefs available to the workers which included:
Provision of 5 kg wheat or rice and 1 kg of preferred pulses free of cost for 3 months to 80 crore poor people starting from April.
Providing a total of three LPG cylinders to over 8 crore Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana beneficiaries for free between April to June.
Giving cash assistance of Rs 500 per month to 20 crore women Jan Dhan account holders, for three months starting from April.
Providing an ex-gratia financial assistance of Rs 1000 for poor senior citizens, poor disabled and poor widows.
Setting up relief camps as per the directions of the Central Government, in which food, shelter, and medical facilities are being provided, as per the requirements of the migrant workers.
Using Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund by the state governments to provide relief to the 3.5 crore registered construction workers.
Although these reliefs will help the workers to survive during this pandemic, the government needs to take proportionate steps, which ensures both their current and future safety and livelihood.
Making a Square Deal
One such step could be to develop a nationwide policy for providing immediate and adequate monetary relief to MGNREGA workers, without any terms and conditions. Alternatively, the government could give a few days wage in advance to the workers, to cope up with the present crisis. These wages can be later adjusted when the economy becomes stable again. The number of guaranteed days of employment can also be increased, as suggested in the PIL. Also, as rightly suggested by various activist groups, the government can enroll all the MGNREGA workers as registered workers under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BoCW) Act, through which they can avail various social security benefits in the form of insurance, pensions, scholarship for education of children, etc.
But all in all, it is safe to say that it is, in fact, the duty of the state to look after its citizens and in times of a calamity like this, the state must do whatever it can to ensure the right to life of its citizens. Thus, the inclusion of these workers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, or any such other schemes, or any steps taken to aid the unprivileged, shall not be considered farfetched, but merely a means to achieve equity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Bhanu Jindal is a first-year student pursuing B.B.A. LL.B (Hons.) from National Law University, Jodhpur. He is a copy editor at NLUJ Law Review and takes interest in commercial law
Shivam Jain is a first-year law student pursuing B.A. LL.B (Hons.) from National Law University, Jodhpur. He is a copy editor at Indian Journal of Arbitration Law (IJAL) and takes an active interest in legal research and drafting
In content picture credits: gaonconnection