PM, Ramesh had strong views on MNREGA wages

New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh took strong positions on the issue of wages paid under the flagship employment scheme MNREGA before the minister yielded to the PM`s instructions to challenge a Karnataka High Court order in the Supreme Court.

According to the centrally funded MNREGA, the payment is Rs 100 per person per day with a committed employment for 100 days in an year.

Some state governments have increased the minimum wages much higher than the stipulated amount under the flagship employment scheme.

On September 23 last year, the Karnataka High Court had struck down fixation of wages saying rates shall be decided in such a manner that they are not less than the minimum wages fixed by the state governments for agricultural labour in their areas.

Expecting a similar judgement from the Andhra Pradesh High Court, the Centre had decided to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court through a special leave petition (SLP) which was opposed by Ramesh.

Ramesh had opposed the SLP move on three grounds — an earlier opinion of Attorney General dated December 7, 2010, Chairman of National Advisory Council (NAC) Sonia Gandhi`s letter to PM on November 11, 2010 and his own views which supported changes in MNREGA and Minimum Wages Act to bring consonance in them.

After much deliberation, the government filed an SLP but the Supreme Court on January 23 this year refused to stay the High Court order.

Behind the SLP is a chain of letters and meetings between Singh and Ramesh where their strong positions on the issue are quite evident. The letters, revealed under the Right to Information Act to activist Subhash Agrawal, show that the Centre wanted to challenge the High Court order.

 Objecting the move, Ramesh in his letter, dated October 30, 2011, to the Prime Minister said it is "inadvisable" to challenge the order in the Supreme Court.

"Considering the unequivocal nature of legal opinion in favour of adherence to Minimum Wages Act 1948, it is unlikely that the Central Government would succeed in reversing the decision of Karnataka High Court," the Minister wrote in the letter.

Ramesh also said there was a likelihood that the Supreme Court may declare the provisions of wage payment under NREGA as ultra vires on the same grounds as the High Court.

He suggested amendments in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and MNREGA to bring consonance in them.

Ramesh cited the views of National Advisory Council (NAC) Chairman Sonia Gandhi that MNREGA workers should be paid minimum wages notified under the Minimum Wages Act.

Documents suggest that the Rural Ministry went ahead seeking legal opinion on the matter, in which Ramesh noted on a file on December 7, 2011, "I am taken aback by the fact that the Ministry of Rural Development sought an opinion from the Department of Legal Affairs for filing a SLP before the Supreme Court on this matter without getting my approval.

"This is completely unacceptable under any circumstance but more so given the importance of issue under discussion. I want to make my displeasure known in unequivocal and categorical terms and also want to lay down very clearly that the final decision whether to file the SLP or not lies with me."

Five days later, he shot a note to Principal Secretary to PM saying he was "strongly against the idea of filing a SLP" for the reasons explained by him earlier and sought a meeting with the Prime Minister.

On December 19 last year, Singh rejected the idea of amending these Acts as suggested by Ramesh as "it is likely to take some time" and asked him to go ahead with challenging the Karnataka High Court order.

"These options could be considered after an SLP is filed. We should also keep in mind the pending case before the Andhra Pradesh High Court. I, therefore, request you to proceed with filing Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court in consultation with the Law Ministry," Singh said in a letter dated December 19, 2011.

"I strongly suggest that all efforts may be made to ensure that the order of the AP High Court does not become absolute and final without Government being able to have the matter considered further from all aspects," he said.

After speaking to the PM and the FM on the issue, Ramesh replied to Singh the very next day, "I have all along held the view that a SLP should not be filed…I am also of the opinion that that somehow the atmospherics associated with the filing of a SLP will go against us.

"However in the background of what you and FM have directed, I have already given the go ahead to filing a SLP… I have taken care to ensure that SLP is not overly confrontational in nature," he said.