On 26th March, the Bihar government released a circular lowering the MNREGA wage from Rs 144 to Rs 138 per day with effect from 1st April 2013. Workers and peasants, who were already facing the blow of delayed payments in MNREGA, were shocked. It was beyond comprehension. How can any Government reduce wages? Nonetheless, it had happened. Bihar Government blamed the Central Government and pleaded innocence for paying Rs. 138.
JJSS started its struggle against this anti-poor measure in three pronged way:
- Mobilisation of workers against the reduction
- Petition and meeting with all political parties demanding their attention including the ministers and senior officials
- Challenging the decision in the Patna High Court
2nd May mobilization in Patna: JJSS and NAPM organised a one day discussion in Patna on 2nd May. The idea was to highlight the issue in Patna amongst political parties, trade unions and civil society and to register a strong protest against the move. A strong contingent of more than 250 workers from Araria, Katihar and Muzaffarpur (MNREGA watch saathis) joined us and made the discussion extremely fruitful and relevant. The meeting was well attended by Left Party Unions. Other political parties promised to attend, but did not turn up. Jiten Paswan of JJSS set the tone of the meeting by his moving song “rahiye na mazoor na mangihe mazdoori, chalwa da ye nitish gardaniye pe choori” (Nitish, slit throat of all the workers with knife – once dead they will not ask for their wages”). Dhirendra Jha of AIALA, Com. Mishra of CPI were prominent representatives of the left unions.
Meeting with Political Parties: JJSS, NAPM, and PAEG started the campaign against the lowering of wages by first sending a letter to the Chief Minister and the Rural Development Minister. Ashish of JJSS had found out that the decision to lower the wage was taken at the highest level (through the use of the RTI) and it could be overturned only by the Chief Minister. We came to know through people in the government that the chief minister was not willing to take back the decision. Thus, we decided to meet representatives of all political parties to make them aware of the issue and ask them to support this struggle. Most sympathised with the cause and assured us that they will make it a political issue. We also invited them to the 2nd meeting. Most agreed to come, but only Left party leaders attended the meeting on 2nd.
Meeting with the Chief Minister: On July 2nd, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey were part of an NCPRI meeting organised to initiate the state level processes to build a vibrant network for the RTI. We took this opportunity to meet Nitish Kumar. Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Kamayani Swami, and Ashish Ranjan met the chief minister and talked about various issues groups were facing in MNREGA, murder of RTI activist Ram Kumar Thakur, Social Audit directorate etc. We heard from the chief minister that the decision to increase the MNREGA wages had been taken and the govt will pay Minimum wage to MNREGA workers. We were thrilled to know this and thanked for a very progressive decision. We appreciated the fact that Bihar is the first state to take this principled stand of paying minimum wage in MNREGA.
Bihar went through a political turmoil in between as the alliance between JD(U) and BJP broke. We were apprehensive if the decision would come through. However, we were glad to hear the announcement that NREGA wage rate would be made Rs. 162 in the assembly by the CM on 19th June, 2013 . In fact, the CM compared the minimum wage of Bihar with other states, particularly Gujarat, and stated that Bihar was much ahead! The final notice of the wage rate was however issued on 24th July, 2013. JJSS rejoiced and said that victories in such battles makes us feel that we are part of this democracy!