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Why Modi govt’s caste-based payment of MGNREGA wages is causing trouble in Karnataka

Central govt's erratic disbursal of funds to three MGNREGA accounts in Karnataka is ‘causing disaffection’ among workers. State govt seeks return to old system of one account.

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Bengaluru: The Modi government’s decision to split wage payments along caste lines under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is creating problems in Karnataka, with labourers from different castes having to wait longer to receive wages.

In a letter dated 11 March 2021, the Union Ministry of Rural Development had asked the Karnataka Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) ministry to open two new bank accounts for MGNREGA wage payments. Until then, a single wage account was being used to transfer money directly to all those employed under the Act.

The two new accounts were asked to be reserved for wage payments to Scheduled Caste (SC) labourers and Scheduled Tribes (ST) labourers respectively, while the older account was to be used to disburse payments to workers of all other castes.

In an advisory sent to all state governments on 2 March, the rural development ministry said the Government of India had decided to provide separate budget heads for SC and ST categories under MGNREGA from the financial year 2021-22 for wage payment.

Months down the line, this decision has thrown up a range of problems at the grassroots level.

Disparity in wages

It isn’t so much the split in wage accounts but the central government’s erratic and non-uniform disbursal of payments to each of the three accounts that is causing problems.

For example, the SC wage account for Karnataka received funds six times in August — 4, 5, 8, 10, 12, and 25 August. The ST wage payment account received funds only thrice — on 17, 24, and 26 August, and wage payment account for other workers received funds from the rural development ministry only twice — 29 and 31 August.

Payments under the scheme should ideally be disbursed to the beneficiary within 15 days of their work.

While work demand and wage demand is being generated among all three accounts, the government is failing to disburse payments in a uniform manner. This has led to labourers belonging to one caste receiving payments faster despite taking up the same work in the same region, while others have to wait longer, creating differences among them.

“For years we have worked to bring labourers together and fight for their rights in unity. With this one move, the Union government has created fissures among workers,” Abhay Kumar, general secretary, Grameena Kooli Karmikara Sanghatane (GRAKOOS) told The Print. “This decision to split wages on caste lines has led to the rise of casteism in villages. Workers now want to form their own caste groups and take up works under MGNREGS because the government is promoting caste-based payments.”

Grakoos is a collective of rural workers and farm labourers in Karnataka headquartered in Raichur district. The organisation focuses on ensuring employment under MGNREGA among other rural labourers’ concerns. 

Kumar’s organisation and its various district units have filed numerous complaints with the RDPR ministry in Karnataka to withdraw caste-wise wage payment.

The labourers’ anger is not misplaced. ThePrint has accessed a detailed break-up of pending wages from all three accounts. As of 31 August 2021, wage demand sent under the SC account was Rs 430.64 crore but the fund released by the rural development ministry was Rs 365.69 crore, with Rs 64.95 crore pending.

The wage demand sent under the ST bank account was Rs 281.27 crore while the payment received by the rural development ministry was Rs 218.26 crore, with Rs 63.01 crore pending.

Under the ‘Other’ category account, wage demand of Rs 1,875.25 crore was raised but the ministry has paid only Rs 1,238 crore, with Rs 637.25 crore pending.

To put it in perspective, the deficit for SC account is 14.88 per cent, while it is 22.40 per cent for the ST account and 33.98 per cent for ‘Other’ account.

“Earlier, if there was a delay in payment, all workers would face it together since one single account was disbursing funds but now since there is disparity in payment, workers are developing grouse over one caste getting paid faster than the other. If an SC worker gets paid faster, others take offence and vice-versa. Many organisations have filed complaints highlighting the issues,” said a senior official of the RDPR department who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“If the point of this experiment was to keep a track of how many SC/ST workers claim employment under the scheme, then the government could have just referred to muster roll where name, registration number, village, bank account details as well as caste of the worker is clearly registered,” the official added.

ThePrint has accessed a copy of one sample muster roll of unskilled labourers registered under MGNREGA in Karnataka where the caste of the workers is clearly indicated.

ThePrint reached various officials of the union ministry of rural development over five days via mails, phone calls and text messages. At the time of this report, no response has been received on our queries. 

ThePrint contacted secretary (MoRD) over mails and phone calls, joint secretary (MGNREGA), and project implementation officer MGNREGA, MoRD.

Also read: ‘Inordinate delay’ in release of funds for MGNREGA workers discouraging — Parliamentary panel

Karnataka govt writes to rural development ministry

So deep is the scathing impact of this payment disparity that Karnataka has written to the rural development ministry to revert to the old system.

In a letter dated 9 September, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, Karnataka’s RDPR secretariat wrote to Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary (RD), rural development ministry, to reconsider the trifurcation of the wage account.

“Field functionaries are not able to explain the reasons to MGNREGA workers whose wages are pending. The fact that certain categories receive wages before certain other categories is causing operational inconvenience,” the letter reads.

Karnataka’s Minister for Rural Development and Panchayat Raj K.S. Eshwarappa, however, called the central government’s decision “good”.

“SC workers — the poorest of the poor — are being benefitted by this since they get payment faster than others. So, in a way, this decision is a good one. There is a little bit of disgruntlement among other workers that their payments are getting delayed. I have requested the Union government to disburse funds uniformly in all three accounts so there is no disparity,” Eshwarappa told The Print.

Kumar, however, said the poor are dropping out of MGNREGA due to a delay in wages.

“I don’t know if the government’s idea of implementing this caste-wise payment account was to study why SC/ST workers were not taking up as much work under MGNREGS. If that was the intention then they aren’t understanding the problem. There has been a dip in SC/ST workers taking up jobs under the scheme due to severe delay in payments. This year alone, payments have been delayed by two months at least twice. And we are just in September. Poorest of the poor labourers are dropping out of the scheme because payments are getting delayed,” Kumar added.

As of September 27, Karnataka had recorded more than 10 crore person days under the scheme, according to the official website of the rural development ministry.

(Edited by Neha Mahajan)

Also read: Modi govt’s e-Shram takes digital literacy as granted. Won’t help unorganised sector workers


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