In the backdrop of workers taking to the streets on Labour Day to protest against their status, here is why the government's rural jobs guarantee programme presents an alarming picture today.
Central Government expenditure on NREGA declined from Rs 40,100 crores in 2010-11 to Rs 38,597 crores in 2014-5. In real terms, this means a decline of about 30% over four years. As a ratio of GDP, Central Government expenditure on NREGA dropped from 0.6% in 2009-10 to 0.3% in 2014-5.
Declining expenditure combined with rising costs have led to an even sharper decline in NREGA employment. The number of person-days of work generated by NREGA declined from 284 crore in 2009-10 to 155 crore in 2014-5 - a crash of close to 50% in five years. If NREGA employment declines by another 50% in the next five years, nothing will be left of this programme.
The entitlements of NREGA workers have been repeatedly restricted during the last two years. Some illustrations:
(1) NREGA has been delinked from the Minimum Wages Act - the Central Government reserves the right to set wage rates.
(2) Even the stipulated wage is not guaranteed as a right (the clause "Under no circumstances shall labourers be paid less than the wage rate" has been removed from Schedule 1 of the Act).
(3) A critical provision enabling NREGA workers to claim compensation for delayed wages under the Payment of Wages Act has also been removed.
(4) Compliance with the Persons with Disabilities Act has been removed from the Guidelines.
(5) Daily-wage payments are no longer allowed (piece-rate payment is compulsory).
(6) The right to demand work has been turned into a duty: no formal application, no work.
According to the Central Government's NREGA website, delayed payments accounted for 70% of all NREGA wage payments in 2014-5 (up from 50% in 2013-4). Instead of the earlier provision whereby NREGA workers were entitled for compensation under the Payment of Wages Act in the event of delays, the new Schedules provide for compensation at a measly rate of 0.05% (yes!) per day.
UID - The next blow?
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Rural Development announced that Aadhaar (UID) would be compulsory for all NREGA workers from 1 April 2015: no UID, no work. This was a clear violation of a Supreme Court order (March 2014) stating that "no person shall be deprived of any service for want of Aadhaar number in case he/she is otherwise eligible/entitled" and directing the government to modify all its forms and circulars accordingly. Following another Court order on 16 March 2015, the Ministry issued a "clarification" on 15 April, explaining that arrangements for a case-by-case exemption from UID had been put in place. However, numerous reports from the field indicate that there is continuing pressure to impose UID on all NREGA workers. This takes the form, for instance, of cancelling the Job Cards of workers who don't have a UID, or of refusing them work. This illegal imposition of UID on NREGA workers is causing enormous disruption and could easily lead to another setback in the entire programme.