Manika, a small town in Jharkhand, celebration of International Workers’ Day on Tuesday in a unique way: An annual event, this year the rural workers in Manika agitated in a rally against the stagnation of the wages they get under the premier Government of India scheme floats by the previous UPA government under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
The workers were unhappy because, two years ago, on the same day, hundreds of NREGA workers in Manika had sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, along with a five-rupee note, to protest against the meagre increase of NREGA wages in Jharkhand, from Rs 162 per day in 2015-16 to Rs 167 per day in 2016-17.
The Prime Minister did not respond. The following year, the NREGA wage in Jharkhand was raised by just one rupee (from Rs 167 to 168 per day), prompting NREGA workers to send another protest letter to the Prime Minister with a one-rupee coin. This year, the NREGA wage in Jharkhand was not increased at all.
Another “injustice”, under which they are reeling, is the new phenomenon of “rejected payments” of the NREGA wage system. Delays in wage payments have affected NREGA workers for many years, but the rejection of payment orders is largely a new problem, created by the aadhaar-based biometric payment system.
According to the NREGA’s management and information system (MIS), close to Rs 500 crore of wage payments were rejected in the last financial year in the country as a whole. And in Manika’s overcrowded banks, no one is available to assist NREGA workers as they run from pillar to post for their meagre wages. Widows and old-age pensioners are also victims of this defective payment system.
This ordeal has prompted NREGA workers and pensioners in Manika to send a strong letter to Dr Urjit Patel, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, drawing his attention to the chaos that has spread in the banking system. The letter also demands ten immediate steps to address the problem.
Highlighting how NREGA workers and pensioners face “endless harassment” at banks when they go to withdraw what is owed to them, the letter says, they ara asked for a stream of documents, to go through e-KYC again and stand in line for hours.
Insisting that such technical problems be looked into immediately, the letter says, “Even when accounts are credited, workers and pensioners are often prevented from withdrawing money from their account until they link it with Aadhaar or comply with other formalities.”
The letter underlines, “A public-sector bank should not be run for profit but for the benefit of the public and especially of poor people”, demanding, “No account should be closed without informing the account holder. No one should be prevented from withdrawing money from their own account. A full-time help desk with computer and internet should be opened at the bank to assist people who are having problems with their bank account.
Among other demands raised at the protest are minimum wages of Rs 300 per day for NREGA workers, immediate payment of maternity entitlements (Rs 6,000 per child without conditions) under the National Food Security Act, no dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act, and strict action against those responsible for the recent murder of the gram Pradhan of Jungur village in Manika block.
The event began with a march across the town, with the participants wearing black bands to protest against the recent injustices done to NREGA workers and pensioners. The crowd then assembled at the block office for a public meeting. The meeting started with two minutes of silence in memory of all those who gave their life for workers’ rights over the years.
James Herenj, convenor of NREGA Watch Jharkhand, explained the history and importance of International Workers’ Day. Rita Oraon, Birju Ram, Nagina Bibi, Anil Anshuman, Dheeraj Kumar and many others spoke about the growing attack on NREGA workers’ rights, the hardships endured by pensioners as they run from pillar to post for their meagre pensions, and also people’s efforts to organise for their rights in the area.Top Dalit rights leader Bezwada Wilson, convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan, was a special guest at this event.
An initiative of Gram Swaraj Mazdoor Sangh, a local organisation of rural workers, aside from hundreds of NREGA workers, pensioners and other rural residents of Manika, the event was attended by many well-wishers as well as representatives of representatives of the CPI(ML), Right to Food Campaign and National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) among other organisations.