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On Ruing Missed Chances

Sometime this month, Justice N Ramamohana Rao of the Andhra Pradesh High Court will deliver a verdict that will directly impact earnings of the 114 million people who work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the Central government’s work guarantee programme. The verdict will also indirectly impact earnings of the 400 million workers and labourers who toil in India’s factories and fields for ‘minimum wages’.

The question Justice Rao will try to answer is this: can the Centre fix NREGS wages in isolation, or should it set it at the minimum wage rate prevailing in each state? The first option confers power on the Centre and allows it to pay less than the minimum figure set by a state for its workers. In doing so, it goes against the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the law that sets the baseline for worker earnings.

The second option makes it toe that law. The five-year experience of NREGs, and what it has done to worker empowerment and minimum wages in India, shows that this is a complex question. Interwoven into it are livelihood issues, worker rights, centre-state relations and politics.

and so, with a empty laugh, i present my story on the ongoing tussle between states, centre and civil society over the whether nrega wages should respect the minimum wages act.

why empty laugh? because this is a complex, nuanced story and i have not done justice to it. the centre, worried about the financial implications of the states being left free to set nrega wages, has delinked nrega from the min wages act. civil society is worried about the implications of this delinking, saying it weakens both nrega and the min wages act. the states are up in arms because, from now on, all this also means that the centre will be the one determining effective minimum wages across india — as a market intervention, nrega wages have done more than any state commandment to enforce min wages. with the delinking, pop goes all that!

the story does a decent job of presenting all three perspectives. but fails in its conclusion. i am still trying to figure out why.