Workers employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) came down to the streets of Delhi to voice their protest over the delay of wages. With hundreds of workers, one could hear the firm voice of Nikhil Dey, the man who fought against all odds for the sake of NREGA along with Right to Information (RTI), Right to Food, the Lokpal Bill, etc. In a brief conversation with Nikhil Dey at Jantar Mantar, we got to know the insights behind the bitter reality behind this government programme.
Sumantra Mukherjee (SM): How is this government slow poisoning the NREGA?
Nikhil Dey (ND): The government is poisoning the NREGA primarily by squeezing funds, by drying them up – thereby leaving hardly any to run this programme. The NREGA is a demand-driven programme. People will demand work, you have to provide work and you have to provide resources for that work. From making budget cuts to making sure that whatever demands are made by the states for the same are cut down to delaying payment of wages and delaying the release of funds; hundreds of people coming here are saying that they have payments pending for one to two years. How will they go back to work?
They see that this programme has no credibility. Because of demonetization, there is a huge pressure as people have come back from losing their job. Because of droughts and floods, there are a huge amount of problems in the villages. This is when NREGA must be working. But here, people are neither getting work nor paid on time. They are also not getting compensation or unemployment allowances. So you have a law which is not being followed. The government is making a law and saying that we are doing everything, but actually they are poisoning it.
SM: So, how it will affect the socio-economic structure in our villages?
ND: The NREGA is one such programme which has been a life saver for people. It has not made them rich but it had saved them from starvation. We will start seeing deaths due to starvation now. We will see great social inequity and much more conflict and violence in villages. When these start happening, perhaps the government will realise what it has done, but then it will be too late. We have a programme that’s not costing us even 1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) right now. If act on NREGA, we will take care of so many people’s unemployment, be it men or women. Why is the government not sensible and why does not invest money in the correct place we are building the infrastructure? The government itself says that they are building infrastructure, but why they are not investing in this programme? This will cause great harm and it won’t be only a mere failure of the law. It will be a failure for India’s socio-political arena.
SM: Is there any political motive behind this move of the central government?
ND: There are two moves. One, they keep calling it as a Congress programme which is not. Even the BJP voted for it in the Parliament. It’s a national law passed by the Parliament and from their side, they can improve upon it and show that it’s a stronger programme.
But the second reason is, that all the affluent people are against it because it increases the wage rate, it gives agricultural workers some dignity and strength and it gives them the capacity to fight. The people have a vested interest in the programme. Most English speaking newspapers and economic newspapers generally say that the program is a waste of money because they have not gone down and met these people who are there fighting. That’s why we have to come here in Delhi and make our voices heard.