EDITORIALS

Within a month of Aseemananda’s confession, the usual play-acting has started. The RSS and its affiliate, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have denied the charges and attacked the Central Bureau of Investigation for playing Congress politics. They have claimed that the Congress is using this to divert attention from corruption and inflation. The media in its stilted attempt to balance the story has downplayed the culpability of the RSS. In any case, this is not the first time that the RSS has been exposed for its violent, communal and destructive politics, and given its deep penetration of social and political institutions, it has managed to come out of such situations in the past too. This battle against the RSS and the world view it represents has to be won politically. Aseemananda’s confession will hopefully

disabuse many of those who have come to view the RSS, through its electoral affiliate – the BJP – as a legitimate organisation and expose once again its true character. If popular political pressure, combined with media scrutiny and civil society activism, can be sustained, there is a possibility that those guilty of the present round of terror acts may be punished. This itself will be a major achievement. Finally, we must now ask Prime Minister Manmohan Singh which is the “biggest internal security threat” to the idea of India. Is Maoism, as he often says, a basic threat to India, or, on the basis of the mass of evidence of right wing extremist involvement in terror, can it be Hindutva? Perhaps Congress Party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi shows greater awareness of the reality.

A Half Step
The government falls short of constitutional requirements even after it indexes wage rates in MGNREGA to inflation.

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s a sop to the millions of Indians who work on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MgNREGA) programmes, the central government has decided to index the wage rate in the scheme to the official Consumer Price Index for Agricultural Labourers (CPIAL). This decision was announced within days of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making it clear that the government cannot set the MGNREGA wages at the statutory minimum in each state in accordance with the provisions of the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. According to the decision announced by the rural development ministry, workers on the MGNREGA programme will henceforth receive wages that will be indexed to the CPIAL and be revised every year. To begin with, the daily wage under MGNREGA in individual states will be revised over the base rate that was frozen at Rs 100 as far back as April 2009. (The base rate itself is to be revised once in five years and the government is working on a new price index specific to the MGNREGA.) The ministry has been trumpeting that its decision to index wages to the CPIAL will result in a 17% to 30% hike in the wage rate across the states from this month onwards. What it has, of course, refused to highlight is that this “hike” comes after a freeze in the nominal wage rate in MGNREGA for 19 months during which time food inflation has been running at double digits. The more important decision is of the government refusing to fix the MGNREGA wages at the statutory minimum fixed in each state. In spite of the Andhra Pradesh High Court passing strictures against non-payment of the statutory minimum, the chief ministers of Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan requesting the centre to permit payment of the minimum wage and no less a person than the chairperson of the National Advisory Council writing (for form’s sake?) to the prime minister with the same proposal, the government has decided to violate its own law in implementation of its own programme! The United Progressive Alliance government has always been against payment of minimum wages to workers in the MGNREGA programme. The NREGA of 2005 did not have a provision to pay the statutory minimum and ever since the government

has resisted pressures to do so. The refusal is based on the argument that since it is the states that set the statutory minimum wages but the centre which funds the MGNREGA, the former will be tempted to frequently revise the minimum wage rate. With a division of responsibilities between the centre and the states, this is no doubt a difficult issue to settle. But a resolution does not lie in a flat refusal to pay minimum wages to workers in a government programme. The current policy is in fact constitutionally and legally wrong as numerous court verdicts in India have ruled. The revision of the daily wage is not going to materially change matters. According to the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and others who are monitoring implementation, the daily wage paid hitherto was less than the prescribed minimum wage in 15 states and union territories. After the revision, the wage rate will still fall below the minimum prescribed wages in 10 states. An argument made against non-payment of the minimum wage is that keeping MGNREGA wages below the minimum will ensure that the programme is self-selecting and benefit only the needy. And that higher wages will distort the farm labour market, with many workers preferring the MGNREGA over other work. But is not the payment of the minimum wage in this programme an incentive for proper implementation of the Minimum Wages Act in other forms of labour as well? This is ignored by critics who do not want any state intervention in the setting of wages for farm labour. Fiscal conservatives who have always been sceptical about the MGNREGA have been critical of the additional cost burden that would be entailed if wages were paid in line with the Minimum Wages Act. But how much would this actually be? An exercise by the MKSS suggests that the increment over and above the cost of the recent indexation with the CPIAl will be no more than Rs 300 crore for the last quarter of 2010-11 or Rs 1,200 crore in a full financial year. Is this a burden that is too expensive for the central government to bear to adhere to the law? By linking wages to inflation, the government has only met the rights of workers across the country half-way; it continues to steer clear of their legal entitlement.
january 15, 2011 vol xlvI no 3
EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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