As 10 states battle a drought and the consequent agrarian crisis, the Supreme Court pulled up the Centre on Wednesday over unpaid wages under rural job scheme MNREGA, saying the government could not turn a blind eye to it.
“It’s meaningless to have welfare schemes if affected persons do not receive assured benefits on time. Thousands of crores is announced from the PM Relief Fund but the money reaches after three years,” a bench headed by justice MB Lokur said.
The bench hearing a public interest litigation on drought was shocked to know that MNREGA reported over Rs 8,000 crore in unpaid wages for the 2015-16 fiscal.
“It’s not sufficient to say that so much has been allotted under a scheme,” it said. “Those who worked under MNREGA are waiting for money. Why should people work without being paid? You can’t tell somebody to work today without money, which will be given after three months,” the bench said when petitioner Swaraj Abhiyan complained of non-payment.
Additional solicitor general Pinky Anand told the bench the government would release the payments in a week. Unconvinced, the judges asked her to get back on Thursday and explain how the Centre would implement MNREGA as per law.
HT had on April 4 reported the delay in payments under the scheme could aggravate the rural crisis. Other than unpaid wages of Rs 8,261 crore, government records show another Rs 3,686 crore as amount not paid for material used in 2015-16. The combined amount of nearly Rs 12,000 crore could eat into the budgetary allocation of Rs 38,500 crore for the current fiscal.
The government had on Tuesday said the pending liability of nearly Rs 8,000 crore in unpaid wages under MNREGA for 2015-16 would not affect the scheme in 2016-17. It said the process for releasing funds to states to clear liabilities had been initiated.
Aimed at reducing migration of the rural poor by providing them employment closer home, MNERGA assures payment worth 100 days’ wages to those who work for rural infrastructure projects.
The National Food Security Act (NFA) mandates assured payment for 150 days to those living in drought-affected districts. The Centre allocates and releases funds to the states.
Displeased to know that workers were unpaid for 45 days of work, the bench said, “We are worried about the drought situation and want to help people. The temperature has reached 46 degrees. People don’t have potable water and in such a situation sending relief after six to eight months will be meaningless.”
“How will you pay for 200 days?” it asked when told drought-prone state governments had offered to increase the number of days for assured payment from 150. “There are schemes but it doesn’t seem to be happening on the ground.”
The top court said the government could not deny the existence of a drought, especially in the Marathwada and Bundelkhand regions. It was time for the government to judge the situation and initiate remedial measures to tackle it, it said. “Litigation doesn’t become adversarial because Prashant Bhushan (the petitioner’s lawyer) has raised the issue,” the court said.