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A Political Agenda to Minimise Wages

Can workers in India's largest public works programme - the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme - be paid less than the statutory minimum wage? A discussion of what led to such a situation and the government's response to the demand of people's movements.

As this article is being written (end November), a letter pending action sits in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), from none other than the ruling party president and National Advisory Council (NAC) chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Signed by her on 11 November 2010, the import of this letter has been dictated by millions of labourers in the country. Their demand is as simple as it can get – they want to be paid the minimum wage rate in their state, for work done by them under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

That such a right actually has to be demanded and fought for itself seems inconceivable in a democracy whose Supreme Court unequivocally upholds that a wage payment lower than minimum wages violates Article 23 of the Constitution and hence amounts to “forced labour”.1 It has taken 47 days of public protest by activists and labourers in Rajasthan, a high court judgment in Andhra Pradesh, letters from Rajasthan government to the centre and from the chief ministers of AP and Rajasthan to the prime minister, urgent recommendations by the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) working group on wages, and an open statement signed by 15 eminent jurists to have this letter from the NAC chairperson sent to the PM.

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