New Delhi, Jan 30 (PTI) As many as 100 lawyers from across India have written to the Rural Development Ministry expressing concern over the Union government's "incorrect and heavily punitive decision" to withhold the MGNREGA funds for West Bengal and have urged them to pay the dues. In a letter addressed to the Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, the lawyers and legal professionals from across India, on behalf of the National Alliance for Justice, Accountability and Rights (NAJAR), expressed deep concern over the central government’s "incorrect and heavily punitive decision to withhold work and freeze the NREGA funds to the State of West Bengal since the last two years citing various discrepancies".
The Union government has stopped funding the scheme in West Bengal since March 9, 2022, based on allegations of corruption in the implementation process.
"However, the need to investigate into allegations of corruption by implementing agencies cannot be at cross purposes with the State's duty to uphold workers' rights (including timely provision of work, wages and compensation) under statute. Therefore, the pursuit of the former must not be allowed to lead to denial or violation of the latter," they said.
Quoting a report, they said West Bengal has been one of the best-performing states in terms of implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA, 2005).
"In the year 2021-22, Bengal employed the highest number of unskilled workers and created the second highest number of person-days, after Rajasthan, under the Act, with many important civic works being undertaken under the scheme. Thus, the NREGA has served as the foundation of Bengal’s rural economy," they said.
"This stoppage of funds has thus resulted in withholding of wages for the work already done and non-resumption of work. The Centre’s decision to withhold funds for a prolonged period and in this manner is thus a direct attack on the constitutional and human rights of the workers," they said.
They said the prolonged freeze on fund-release by the Centre is not only a blatant violation of Section 3 of the Act which specifically mandates timely payment of wages.
"It is important to remember that Section 27 of the NREGA Act provides for stoppage of release of funds only for a reasonable period of time, that too, with a mandate to institute appropriate remedial measures within a reasonable period of time," the lawyers said in the letter.
They added that Section 7 of the Act provides for an unemployment allowance in case of non-payment and Para 30, Schedule II provides for a further entitlement to compensation as well in case of delays beyond a period of 15 days.
The lawyers said despite the work done more than one-and-a-half to two years ago, the wages of workers still remain unpaid and women are particularly impacted by this. The severe distress in the villages caused by the loss of work and wages is also leading to massive migration of men to other states.
They also said the families are suffering a severe food crisis, barely surviving on rice and potatoes and the PDS rations (3 kg rice, 2 kg wheat) are grossly insufficient.
"Against this deeply disturbing backdrop, we hope and expect that the Centre immediately reconsiders its decision and works with an empathetic and humane view of the present situation at hand instead of its present incorrect, unreasonable and punitive decision of stopping funds for no fault of bonafide workers," they said.
"NAJAR urges the Union government to stop penalizing impoverished workers for any alleged corruption and lapses by the system and bureaucracy of a State. Any inquiry into such allegations must be completely independent of timely payments to eligible workers, as per requirements of the NREGA Act and the right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution," they said.
According to West Bengal government's figures, the funds due includes Rs 9,330 crore under the PMAY, Rs 6,900 crore under the MGNREGA, Rs 830 crore under the National Health Mission, Rs 770 crore under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, Rs 350 crore under the Swachh Bharat Mission and Rs 175 crore for the Mid Day Meals among other schemes.
The total dues, including GST compensation, devolution, performance grant and others, is over Rs 1 lakh crore, according to the state government. PTI AO AS AS