Labour welfare board in Himachal pulls the plug on benefits, puts MGNREGA workers in trouble
Shimla: Being part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) Scheme has brought many benefits to Chatra Devi (62) of Sohari village in Bijhari block of Hamirpur district. A registered worker under the Himachal Pradesh Building & Other Construction Workers Welfare Board for over a decade, she received Rs 51,000 as boards assistance for her daughters wedding last year.
Before that, when she turned 60, she started getting a monthly pension of Rs 500, which was later increased to Rs 1,000. She had also received an induction stove and lamp much before.
Everything went well for her until July last, when her pension came to a stop. “I have heard the government has discontinued my pension,” she told 101Reporters. A December 12 order regarding the discontinuation of benefits to workers cleared up things further.
“Many MGNREGA workers in our village relied on pension, and assistance for children’s education and marriage. Even distribution of bicycles and induction stove has come to a stop,” said Chatra’s husband Vichitra Singh. Chatra added that workdays under the scheme have also diminished. “In the last two years, we hardly got work for 20 days.”
Construction worker Dharam Singh (68) has the same story to tell. “The board has snatched away the only support we had in our lives.”
According to Rachna Devi, a panch and MGNREGA worker from Natehr in Halehr Kalan panchayat of Kangra district, labourers initially got blankets, hot case tiffin boxes, steel dinner sets, water filters, induction heaters or solar cookers from the board. There was a provision for washing machines, bicycles and solar lamps as well until two years ago.
Labourers in the 18 to 60 age group could register with the board, which also provided benefits such as Rs 35,000 assistance each for the marriage of registered labourers or their children (up to two). A sum of Rs 25,000 would be given to a registered woman after childbirth, while a registered man’s wife could get Rs 6,000 each (up to two kids). A woman registered for a minimum of two months, can avail of maternity leave for 90 to 182 days at the prevailing minimum wage.
Scholarships for children of registered labourers from primary to higher education levels, medical aid for labourers and dependents, pension, assistance to dependents of labourers in case of an accident or death were among the other benefits. The board also provided disability pension and shramik transit hostel facility.
“My son and daughter are in Class 12 and college, respectively. Had I been registered with the board earlier, my children would have got scholarships,” said Sandeep Kumari of Nated, who has been an MGNREGA worker for 12 years but never got work for more than 25 days a year.
The existing wage rate is Rs 254 in tribal areas and Rs 203 in non-tribal areas of the State. “Our daily wages should be increased to Rs 350. We do not get the promised 100 days, at least the benefits would have made life easier,” said Jagdamba Devi, who has worked for 15 years under the scheme and has an experience similar to Kumari.
When the issue of discontinuation of benefits was raised on the agenda of a board meeting chaired by the then labour minister Vikram Singh in Mandi on September 24, Singh had reportedly taken note of the CITU’s displeasure and suggested that the benefits be continued.
However, according to CITU leaders, nothing changed on ground as board secretary and chief executive officer Dileram ordered the suspension of registration of MGNREGA workers. As a result, workers have been on protest since October, holding a series of demonstrations across the state.
After the suspension of registration of MGNREGA workers, CITU has led state-wide protests since October.
As many as 3.17 lakh labourers are registered with the welfare board, of which 1.17 lakh are MGNREGA workers. In all, 14.76 lakh jobcards (having names of all workers in a family) have been issued, but only 9.47 lakh are active. Similarly, only 14.21 lakh of the total 27.37 lakh labourers are active. In the 2022-23 financial year (till January 2, 2023), 40.43 days of employment per family have been provided in the State. The total number of families working under the MGNREGA was 5.75 lakh, but only 9,942 families got work for 100 days. The average wage per person per day was Rs 211.14.
“The government’s intention has been wrong from the very beginning. Eight years ago, labourers had to work for minimum 50 days in a calendar year to be eligible for registration with the welfare board. Later, it became 90 days. It seems the government stopped giving work so that the labourers do not qualify for benefits,” CITU State president Vijendra Mehra told 101Reporters.
He claimed member applications of thousands of labourers who worked for 90 days were pending with the board for the last two years. The CITU view was that the Central government was gradually withdrawing from funding welfare schemes.
However, Subhash Bhatnagar, National Co-ordinator of NCC CL, clarified that Labour Welfare Boards are funded from one percent cess levied on construction activities across respective states. “HP Labour Welfare Board, as of November 1, 2022, collected Rs 1,136 Crores and incurred an expenditure of approximately Rs 470 Crores, which implies adequate capacity for extending benefits.”
Ravinder Singh, a member of the HP BOCW Welfare Board, shares that in 2013, the Central Government directed States to increase labour registrations. This led to “bogus registrations of MNREGA workers and others who worked for only 5-6 days, instead of the mandated minimum of 90 days. In a bid to rectify this, the Central government ordered the withdrawal of benefits for MNREGA workers in 2017, under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. The Himachal Pradesh Board violated the instruction and continued to serve these benefits to even ineligible members to garner votes. However, benefits and registrations [for all workers] have been frozen for the time being.”
“For six years, nothing happened. Now, why this sudden action? I believe the secretary acted arbitrarily, without the government’s approval. The new Chief Minister took oath on December 11 and the order was issued the very next day!” claimed Himachal Pradesh MGNREGA and Construction Workers’ Union president Jogendra Kumar. “A signature campaign demanding restoration of all benefits, involving thousands of labourers, would be initiated to draw the government’s attention.”
Dileram was quoted in the local media as saying that the board had sought guidelines from the State government regarding the implementation of the 2017 order, but there had been no response. Hence, the benefits were put on hold. When contacted by 101Reporters, Dileram refused to comment.
Singh concludes, “With the change in the government, new Board appointments will be made soon. We’re yet to see how things will unfold.”