Supreme Court: Delay in payment of wages under MGNREGA scheme unacceptable

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Supreme Court chastised Centre and State governments for the delay in payment of workers’ wages under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005 declaring that such cavalier attitude and callousness is “simply not acceptable”. The Apex Court held “one entity cannot pass on the burden to another or vice versa”, in its verdict on the case on Friday, May 18, 2018.

Facts of the case

In another landmark judgment, our Supreme Court championed the cause of the poor and downtrodden when it stood up for the rights of the daily wage earners’ working under the 100 days guaranteed work scheme under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005. The Court heard the PIL filed by petitioner NGO Swaraj Abhiyan represented at the top court by advocate Prashant Bhusan.

Points of contention

  • Delay in payment of wages and compensation to the beneficiaries under the Act and the Scheme framed thereunder.
  • Reduction in person days and consequent reduction in the allocation of funds from the projection made by the State Governments and the Union Territory Administrations.
  • The absence of social audits being conducted.

It was alleged by the learned counsel to the petitioner that the Central government is responsible for slashing of the funds allocated to respective state government machinery under the scheme, thus, making it impossible for the state government to provide employment to people. It was also argued that it is not the Central government’s prerogative to curtail the funds and also put an informal cap on the availability of funds which severely hampers the intention of the scheme.

Court ruling

The Division Bench comprising of Justices Madan B Lokur and N V Ramana acknowledged the contention of the learned counsel Prashant Bhusan stating that although they do not agree with the petitioner’s viewpoint on all the issues raised in this PIL they are not unaware of the plight of the daily wage earners’. Even while rebuking the Central government for delaying payments to the workers the Court observed “in the 2016-17 financial year, 20 states had crossed the agreed budget and the Centre had provided the funds to them. The position was similar for 2017-18 with 12 state governments and Union Territory exceeded the agreed budget and funds were released.”

The Apex Court remarked “but delays are simply not acceptable. The law requires and indeed mandates payment of wages not later than a fortnight after the date on which the work was done by the worker or labourer. Any reason for the delay in receiving wages is not at all the concern of the worker. He or she is entitled to get the due wages within a fortnight of completion of the work.

The Court reiterated “If there are any administrative inefficiencies or deficiencies or laxity, it is entirely for the State Government and the Ministry of Rural Development to sort out the problem. Bureaucratic delays or red tape cannot be pedalled as an excuse to deny payment of wages to the workers. It is precisely to overcome any inefficiency or deficiency that payment of compensation is postulated, otherwise, the purpose of Section 3 and paragraph 29 of Schedule II of the Act would get completely defeated.” The top court also pointed out that “delayed payment adds several crores to the compensation bill. This is to nobody’s advantage and merely adds an avoidable financial burden on the Central Government.”

Impact of the judgment

The top court directed the Central government to prepare an urgent time bound mandatory program to make the payment of wages and compensation to the workers in conjunction with the Ministry of Rural Development, and in consultation with the State Governments and Union Territory Administrations. According to the Court “this is not only in the interest of the workers who have expended unskilled manual labour but also in furtherance of the rule of law which must be followed in letter and spirit.”

The main focus of the Supreme Court to redress the grievances of the daily wage earners and to stop any delay in their payments highlighted the value of the MGNREGA scheme and the fact that the Act can finally touch the lives of millions of unemployed persons when the “remedial steps to iron out the creases” were finally undertaken. The Court’s acknowledgement and appreciation of the “efforts of the petitioner and the said Ministry should continue … for the socio-economic benefit of the millions of unemployed persons in the country” will impact on the lives of the unemployed populace of our country with this verdict for years to come.

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