The plea said asking MGNREGA workers to work is 'arbitrary and violative' of their Article 14 (right to equality) rights as other non-essential workers have been allowed to protect their health by staying home. (Photo Credit: File Photo)
A fresh PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the Centre and authorities to pay full wages to MGNREGA workers for the entire period of the nationwide lockdown. The 21-day lockdown from March 25 was announced by the government to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. It said that over seven crore workers registered under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) Scheme be deemed to be on job during the lockdown period like other employees and they be paid full wages.
The plea, filed through lawyer Prashant Bhushan, assailed the direction of the Ministry of Rural Development to state governments that MGNREGA workers may be allowed to work wherever possible during the lockdown. It has sought protection of fundamental rights to health and livelihood guaranteed under Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution for over 7.6 crore workers under the employment guarantee scheme. "By the order dated March 24, issued under... the National Disaster Management Act, and binding on all ministries/instrumentalities of the central government and state governments, the central government has placed the entire country under a 'National Lockdown' with requisite exceptions only for essential services/goods to protect lives/ health of all citizens of the country by ensuring social physical distancing," the plea said.
The guidelines of the Ministry of Rural Development saying that MGNREGA workers may be allowed to work is contrary to the lockdown order and it risked "health/lives of MGNREGA workers as it is not possible to ensure social/physical distancing in the nature of the works performed", it said. Being largely involved in construction work, workers pass material from one person to another and social distancing is not possible, it said. "Pertinently, COVID-19 is now present in almost all districts of the country which is a serious health hazard for these vulnerable citizens particularly because the number of persons seeking work is bound to increase as many persons otherwise employed in other sectors are desperate for wages (including migrants who have returned from various cities/places)," it said.
The plea said asking MGNREGA workers to work is "arbitrary and violative" of their Article 14 (right to equality) rights as other non-essential workers have been allowed to protect their health by staying home and ensuring physical distancing. "The present petition ...prays that Respondents issue uniform guidelines to all states/union territories that for the entire duration of the lockdown at least all active and registered job card holders under the MGNREGA Act will be deemed to be at work and accordingly make full payment of their wages at the earliest," it said.
Forcing over 12 crore workers to seek work daily during the lockdown when public transport is not available and police have clear directions to apprehend non-essential worker amounted to violation of right to life and livelihood of these vulnerable citizens, it said. "As coronavirus cases have now spread to large parts of rural India, the arbitrary order exacerbates a public health emergency," the PIL said.
The plea has also sought a direction to authorities to issue "individual temporary job cards within 15 days to all migrants who have returned from the cities to their native villages". It also sought a direction to the Centre to "increase entitlement of households from 100 days of work to 200 days per household to support rural livelihoods during the emerging economic crisis".