West Bengal MGNREGS workers protest over stopping funds to scheme, non-payment of arrears

Protestors gather at chief labour commissioner office, ask for immediate action

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 22 June 2023
MGNREGA workers gathered at the office of the chief labour commissioner in Nizam Palace, Kolkata. Photo: Right to Food and Work Network, West Bengal__

Hundreds of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) workers in West Bengal gathered at the office of the chief labour commissioner in Nizam Palace, Kolkata on June 22, 2023. The workers protested over the blocking of funds to the scheme and the non-payment of pending wages.

The central government blocked funds for MGNREGS in the state on December 21, 2021 by invoking Section 27 of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGREGA). No labour budget was approved for the state in the Union Budget 2023-24 under the scheme.

Several ground reports by Down To Earth showed that wages have been pending for many labourers for over a year. The lack of work under the scheme has also jeopardised the economic conditions of workers, for whom the scheme is a lifeline. 

Also read: Surviving on fish from gutter, rice: West Bengal workers bear brunt of Central freeze on MGNREGA funds

The central government blocked the payment of over Rs 7,500 crore of funds to West Bengal for “non-compliance of directives”. Of this amount, the wage liability is over Rs 2,762 crore. 

The funds’ freeze is lying heavy on the lives of over 13 million MGNREGS workers in the state, many of whom are awaiting their wages from 2021, DTE had earlier reported. 

The June 22 protest was called by Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity and other constituent organisations of the informal network Right to Food and Work Network, West Bengal. Over a thousand workers from different parts of the state had arrived at the protest site, the groups claimed. 

The protestors demanded the Centre release Rs 2,765 crore for their wages that have been pending for more than 18 months. MGNREGA workers, around 6.81 crore in number, make up around 17 per cent of the total rural workforce in the country, they said. 

A five-member delegation of the demonstrators met the regional labour commissioner, Hemang Dimngel.

“Dimngel feigned cluelessness about the raging issue and claimed to be helpless, but promised to send the demands to the central government,” Right To Food and Work Campaign said in a press note. 

“The central government is, in a sense, pushing the workers into destitution, ill health and starvation by stopping wages for 18 months for no fault of the workers,” the campaign further said. 

Also read: DTE Ground Report: Why MGNREGA workers in West Bengal are in dire straits

Not sanctioning any money for the scheme in the Union Budget is just one more step in the Centre’s plan to gradually phase it out and take away one of the few legal rights that rural workers have, the group further alleged. 

The protestors demanded the arrears of the workers be settled immediately, MGNREGA workers be brought under all labour welfare schemes and action be taken against the Centre for the delay in settling the arrears. 

Registered workers are mandated to receive 100 days of work under MGNREGA. Thanks to the scheme, regular work often ensures a comfortable life for villagers if they get work for just 30-40 days, earning around Rs 213 per day, DTE had earlier reported. 

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