At an MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) site of Tithware panchayat, in Partur Taluka, of Jalna district, more than 150 workers were working under a scorching full sun in the month of April. It was exactly 12 noon and mercury was touching 41-degree celsius. At this temperature, workers are not worried about the heat, but their first question to anyone visiting the site was, “how is our work? Is it better than the work of a Machine?”
This explains the situation of the rural labour of this particular part of India, which has been suffering from continuous drought, for many years in a row now. Most of these workers are traditional agricultural workers, but due to the continuous agricultural distress, and acute drought in the area, the only source of work left to them is MNREGA.
A day before these workers clinched a big victory, after a militant struggle forcing the contractor to stop deploying ‘machines’ for the same work that these labourers do. But still, this is the question they are asking, in anxiety and fear. Although, they won this battle because they were well informed about the rules and notification of district administration for this kind of work.
They won the battle because they are organised. But, they are also aware of the strong and powerful nexus of the contractors and government officials, who operate with a few panchayat representatives of the areas.
But the same story doesn’t apply to the rest of the country. In most of the places, workers are losing this battle, without any resistance, only due to ignorance, and power equations at the village level. In most of the places, lack of awareness among the workers, about the scheme, is being used by a nexus of contractors, government officials, employment assistants, and gram sabha heavyweights, in the Panchayat bodies.
Most workers aren’t even aware of the purpose of their job cards. Local politicians across party lines, in close association with contractors, collect documents from villagers and carry out all the necessary procedures required to get them job cards. The cards that are issued are with local politicians-cum-contractors, who carry out MGNREGA works, with the help of machines. On paper, they show that the job is being done by the cardholders. Those at the helm of local establishment, withdraw money from workers’ bank accounts. In many places, these workers have even surrendered their ATM cards to these contractors.
Sadly, this is not something strange or surprising, but an open secret, that is known and accepted by most of the officials, and politicians, responsible for the implementation of the scheme. The scheme is meant to feed the families of the poor who exist in the toughest possible living conditions.
A similar report was filed by Radheshyam Jadhav, in the Hindu Businessline, on the 18th of December, 2018. This report was based on Jat taluka of Sangli district, in Maharashtra. The same fact is accepted in another report of the Government of India itself, National Level Monitoring, Common Review Mission & Internal Audit on MGNREGA, for the financial year 2014-15 to 2016-17.
This report mentions the involvement of contractors in the execution of MGNREGA work. The report has noticed the use of labour displacing machinery, in most of the districts, and also the involvement of contractors, in the execution of work in most of the states.
There are specific guidelines under MNREGA for the use of machines and the nature of work. Para 22 of Schedule-1, Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, reads, “As far as practicable, works executed by the programme implementing agencies shall be performed by using manual labour, and no labour displacing machines shall be used. However, there may be activities in executing works, which cannot be carried out by manual labor, where the use of the machines may become essential for maintaining the quality and durability of works. Specific permission for use of machines listed above must be sought from the competent authority and the operation of such machines should be duly recorded/ documented in each such case and be made part of the case record.”
But, in reality, there is a complete turn of events. The guidelines meant to protect the workers are being misused at a massive scale. In most of the places, simple work, like ‘trench work’ is also being done with the help of JCB machines.
It is very important to note here, that if a machine is deployed for the work, then only the worker operating the machine will get paid, but if workers are doing the same work, more than 150 families make a living out of it. This is a peculiar situation; workers have to put up a militant struggle, to save their livelihood, despite the legal provisions in the act.
The whole issue of the use of the ‘machines’ in MNREGA work cannot be put in versus i.e. machines vs workers. In fact, it is deliberately pitted against in versus, which is no way less than a conspiracy.
No one can deny the use of machines in agricultural work, but it has to be used according to the need and requirements. The massive use of machines for various works under MNREGA is not because of the need, but because of the greed of the local nexus of power.
Various kinds of work under MNREGA are designed to generate employment for rural poor along with various other purposes of development but the generation of employment is central to the idea of MNREGA. All other purposes have to be fulfilled through manual work, which in turn generates demand. The use of machines is nothing but only profit-motivated which undermines human life and its value.
The worker v/s machine conflict isn’t an inevitable conflict, that has arisen on its own, rather it is a forced conflict, a man-made crisis, where a few powerful people are controlling the rural economy, to extract maximum profit.
Earlier, these were the same people who were generating a surplus, through exploiting the labour of agricultural workers, and small farmers, in the erstwhile feudal system. Presently, the character and nature of exploitation have changed.
During the last 25 years of neoliberalism, our rural India has changed in various ways. The power equation has not only changed but also has transformed into a new form. With the changes in agricultural practices and increased use of machines in agricultural, a new group has evolved in the villages.
Presently, many traditional landlords and big farmers are also involved in lucrative business activities (for example, money-lending, grain mills, dairying, trade and speculation in food grain and other agricultural, horticultural and silvicultural commodities, manufacturing, real estate, construction, cinema theatres, petrol pumps, lodging houses, transport, the sale and lease of agricultural machinery, proprietary educational institutions, receiving incomes from financial assets, and so on).
These families obtain entry into the institutions of state power like Panchayati Raj institutions and the higher legislature, the bureaucracy and police, and the legal profession. A very important feature of this class is its control of the political machine in rural and semi-urban localities. It also controls the delivery of all government schemes in rural areas, including those intended for the poor, often directing funds from such schemes to themselves.
The nexus is literally controlling almost all the government schemes, including MNREGA. The influential contractors with autocratic characters of their feudal roots are going to extremes to extract profits. These are using machines for MNREGA work exposing the lives of millions of rural workers to hunger, who have no other alternative source of employment in a crisis-ridden agricultural economy.
The attitude of the central and various state Governments is against the very spirit of the MNREGA, which results in inadequate fund allocation. Presently, more than 1.2 Crore applicants were denied work under MNREGA and the use of machinery is displacing labour, which is further worsening the situation. These contractors are siphoning huge amounts of funds allocated for MNREGA and displacing lakhs of families from work.
This is not going to help our rural economy and is leading to a dangerous situation. India is yet to resolve land issues in the absence of effective land reforms in most of the states, barring a few exceptions. This results in millions of landless workers engaging in agriculture work in rural India. The present agrarian crisis and vast mechanisation of agriculture have resulted in a huge loss of jobs of these landless poor people.
MNREGA definitely has the potential to support the lives of families of millions of families and save them from starvation. It can also ensure the perspective of inclusive development of our rural infrastructure; if improvement of land and water conservation is looked into.
Undue use of machines, through contractors in MNREGA work, is an example of profit-driven nexus of ruling powers in rural India. This is a classic example of the case, in which a feudal landlord is failing the hard-earned achievements of the working class under the social welfare state. In fact, these powers are using the same policies to extract profit, letting millions to peril.
Workers are fighting against this nexus on the ground, but it is the responsibility of other progressive people to stand by the workers, in solidarity with them and not to subscribe to the false binary of ‘machines vs workers’. One should not see this issue in isolation, but as part of the comprehensive perspective of MNREGA and the ‘right to work’.