19 April 2023 6:06 AM GMT
The Supreme Court on Tuesday required the UOI to file its response on the 2021 plea contending that the pending wages of workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MNREGA) are piling up along with negative balances in funds of most of the states The Court required a copy of the application to be made available with the offices of ASG K. M. Nataraj,...
The Supreme Court on Tuesday required the UOI to file its response on the 2021 plea contending that the pending wages of workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MNREGA) are piling up along with negative balances in funds of most of the states
The Court required a copy of the application to be made available with the offices of ASG K. M. Nataraj, recording that he may seek instructions and file a response
The bench of Justices Ajay Rastogi and Ahsanuddin Amanullah was hearing an IA filed in the 2015 PIL by Swaraj Abhiyan for redressal of the situation of MGNREGA workers which was disposed off in May, 2018
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, for the applicants, told the bench, "More than several thousand crores, Rs.13,000 crores of payments are pending, payments have been due under MGNREGA to the workers, crores of workers"
Justice Rastogi: "What is your basis?"
Mr. Bhushan: "This is not disputed....The Act says that one person in every rural household has to be given hundred days of guaranteed employment. The Act further provides that the employment has to be provided within 15 days of making the demand, failing which they have to pay unemployment allowance. And if the payments are delayed beyond 15 days of their having worked, then compensation for delayed payment. Now what is happening is that, despite the various directions given by this court already in this matter that adequate budget has to be placed so that people are able to get employment under this Act, payment has to be made within time, that unemployment allowance has to be given etc, today the situation is that from their own website, it can be seen that more than 10,000 crores of payment is still pending. In West Bengal alone- I am just giving one example of one state- More than 2000 crores of wages are pending for the last 15,16 months. They are not being paid"
Justice Rastogi: "Has the state government made the demand?"
Mr. Bhushan: "State governments have made demand but the central committee is not releasing"
Justice Rastogi: "Are we supposed to regulate this interrelationship between the central government and state governments, why budget is not released, something released, partially released?"
Mr. Bhushan: "We have come on the behalf of workers who have already worked but have not been paid even for 15 months. Those who want to work are not being given work by the government saying that 'look, we have no funds so we can’t give you any work' even though the act entitles them to get minimum hundred days of work in a year. It is a demand-driven regime"
Justice Rastogi: "You can’t get wages of hundred days sitting at your home. It is unemployment"
Mr. Bhushan: "That is why the act says that if you demand work, at least one person in every rural family has to be given hundred days of work. But when I go and demand work, the government says 'there is no money in the scheme and that is why we can't give you work'. That is one of the prayers in this application also and that is on the basis of a detailed letter written by central government Secretary"
Bench to ASG: "Have you filed any response?"
ASG: "I have not filed any response. For all these issues, state governments have to come forward, not some NGOs filing application that you release the funds to the state government"
Justice Amanullah to ASG: "It is a very, very good scheme. But now you are giving rise to corruption for the reason that you release the funds after 15 months, 16 months so there are chances that there will be fudging. Because now, at one point of time, you are deciding about a year and a half. The more it is up-t-date, the lesser the chance of pilferage....Kindly assist us as to what is the scheme and how to make it more conducive and streamlined. We will give you time. Ultimately it is the common man Who is benefiting from it"
Justice Rastogi: "Your demand is also very plausible that everybody who has worked must get the money. But the question is for this court to....suppose you’re coming from West Bengal, there are other states also. The state where you come from, the High Court can take care of what is the budget required for the state of Jharkhand or Maharashtra or Rajasthan or something else and how’s the central government corresponding to them. But if we take this call here, God knows how many more workers, state, budget, no budget, sanctioned, not sanctioned"
Mr. Bhushan: "All that I am saying is that the government has their website, they have an electronic system by which the people who have worked under MGNREGA are registered. The payment has to be made directly into the bank accounts of these workers by the central government. Today, the situation is that for many states, the payments are due, for West Bengal I know that for more than 15 months. The record is there with the central government that these workers have worked and this is the payment which is due to them, the obligation of the central government under the Act is to make the payment, the payment is made directly into their bank account, bank accounts are registered under MGNREGA. Now the central government is saying that 'look, we have no funds'. They are telling some state governments, like they told West Bengal government that 'You will not release funds in your state because of some allegations of corruption in your state'. Now under the act, if there is any allegation of corruption, the central government has the power to investigate those. They should investigate those. How can they not pay the workers who already worked? Also they have brought that every worker's bank account should be linked to his Aadhaar and unless it is linked to his Aadhaar, we will not make the payment. This court in Puttaswamy has made it very clear that you cannot deny someone payment for work that he has done or his legal entitlement just because of Aadhaar"
Justice Rastogi: "We have only one caveat- The central government only wants that the money should go to the beneficiary. They want to cross check that it must go to the beneficiary itself and no intermediary. To cross check, they want that if the link is there, lesser the possibility of any siphoning. Ultimately, the fact is the beneficiary must get what is due to him"
Mr. Bhushan: "But they cannot. Today more than 50% of the MGNREGA registered workers do not have Aadhaar linked to their bank account and the process of linking Aadhaar to their bank account is such a four-step cumbersome process"
Justice Rastogi: "Today the banks are also giving intimation....?"
Mr. Bhushan then requested that the bench heard Activist Nikhil Dey who has been associated with this cause for a long time.
Mr Nikhil Dey: "What I want to actually state is that for over 10 years, soon after the act began, all the workers are paid in bank accounts. There is no question of it not going. All workers' payments go straight to the bank account. It does not go by cash, it does not go to any other place, it goes directly to the bank account of the workers. What is being forced here is Aadhaar-based payment system (ABPS). They want this particular system where the payment will still go to your bank account but it is based on an NPCI mapping system which is very cumbersome. The workers also have Aadhaar. And they themselves for the last four years have been trying to get it done and more than 50% workers could not get on that. So I have worked, I have a bank account, I am being paid over there and now this has been imposed on me? An order passed on 30th of January saying from first of February no payment shall be made unless you are on the mandatory Aadhaar-based payment system? So half the workers in the country, who are roughly 15 crore workers, Will not be paid for work they have already done? I have an Aadhaar card but there is a particular system that they want which is not mandated under Aadhaar law or any other law"
Mr. Nataraj: "This is not an issue that they are opening now. This is a disposed off matter. 2018, the matter has been disposed off. In disposed off matters, he is filing application after so many years. His entire argument starts with government has not done, government has not done"
Justice Amanullah: "That we reject outright. Absolutely nothing to go in that. Let us not lose focus of the main thing....Don’t bring personalities and governments in between"
Justice Rastogi: "If we continue entertaining IAs in a disposed off matter, then there is no conclusion....This court can’t sit over and monitor all that is going on. Your object is very good, we appreciate it. Suppose you find that in one state, say Jharkhand, there is some problem going on, people are not getting their wages. They must get it undoubtedly. After the judgment of this Court, you can go under 226, you can pinpoint the grievance of the people, let the government of India be called upon how to manage their affairs. Otherwise, it is all going on, We are calling upon the government of India for nothing"
Mr. Bhushan: "We have not come with regard to any particular state, We have come for general problems which are recurring. And not the general problems, very, very serious general problems"
Justice Amanullah: "There is also a technical glitch in the sense that it is already disposed off. But for the larger (unclear), we are going ahead, we called upon his good offices (ASG's)....let us find a way out. When directly you send money to the workers, it is high time that we do not (trailing off)....let us strive for them, let governments and politics be out of it, no personalisation"
The bench then passed the following Order: "....Let a copy (of the IA) be made available to offices of Mr. Nataraj who may take instructions and file response. List in July"
Justice Rastogi: "How it is manageable, we have to think. Regulating from this Court is very, very difficult"
Mr. Bhushan mentioned Article 32
Justice Rastogi: "We agree with you, we are not saying you don’t have remedy to come to this court. But we want the system to work"
Mr. Bhushan: "We have raised general issues of all-india importance"
ASG: "They want to expose something by saying in West Bengal, it has not happened!"
Justice Amanullah: "We on the bench assure you that we will not let it happen"
Justice Rastogi: "Ultimately, we are not concerned with any state"
Mr. Bhushan prayed if the matter could be listed once before the summer vacations
Justice Rastogi: "We tell you one thing. Even if we put before vacation, nothing is possible"
Justice Amanullah: "Let us be reasonable. It is a pan-india thing. If you want a meaningful response, we need to give time"
Mr. Nikhil Dey: "It is a very unwieldy scheme actually. Credit to the government of India over all these years. It is a very easily trackable scheme, you know exactly every one of the 15 crore people, you know how they’re working in real time on the website, everything can be seen and can be corrected if there is sufficient money to pay that compensation which is required as per the law. Now some system has been put into place which is causing immense pain to crores of workers"
Justice Rastogi: "The government of India, with its long experience, wants that the money should go to the beneficiary, but at the same time, it must go to a real man who claims to be the beneficiary, and to cross check that- we learn by experience- to cross check that, the government wants some kind of a stringent condition to be there so that the money should flow to the people....Mr. Dey, find out a way by which, whatever the government of India’s experience must be, pilferage to the extent possible can be minimised. It still can't be ruled out. But if minimised, we are succeeding with implementation"
Justice Amanullah: "You started with saying it is a good system, trackable. That is the most fallacious track, data is the easiest thing to manipulate. Mr. Nataraj is sensitised enough for today, let him get back to us. You also give suggestions, take a more practical view on the ground"
Mr. Bhushan: "As a result of this payment system, when workers go asking for work, they are told by the state governments to first go and register under this ABPS system. It is so complicated, they have to stand in queues"
Justice Rastogi: "That is part of the system"
Mr. Bhushan: "It can't be"
Justice Rastogi: "Money must go to the actual beneficiary. So some cross checks are there. Find out alternatives?"
Mr. Bhushan: "Cross-checks can't be such...."
Justice Amanullah: "Probably you are arguing against yourself- That they are supposed to stand in lines. Is it not the responsibility of the state government to ensure that it is done?"