UPA Makes a Mockery of Right to Work and Universal Employment Guarantee

— B. Sivaraman

Instead of fulfilling the long-standing popular demand for incorporation of the right to work as a fundamental right, or enactment of a comprehensive legislation for agricultural labourers, the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA government promised only a legislation to guarantee 100 days of assured employment for one individual in every family living below the poverty line. The process of dilution however did not stop there, rather it only started with the CMP.

Six months into power, and starvation deaths continuing unabated in every corner of the country, the government has barely launched a food-for-work scheme covering just 150 districts (see box). Could there be a bigger mockery of the notion of universal employment guarantee! The process of watering down of the concept of a universal employment guarantee has also been carried forward into the draft of the proposed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (henceforth Draft) prepared by the National Advisory Council.

While the Draft is in circulation, the government has not yet announced a timetable as to when it expects the Draft to be finally enacted. But more intriguingly, the Draft provides for full five years for the proposed Act to come into effect all over the country. This delay is completely inexplicable and it only shows sheer lack of urgency and commitment on the part of the Congress-led and Left-backed UPA government.

In the CMP, the UPA government had introduced the idea of a National Food for Work Programme (NFFWP) as an interim or stopgap arrangement pending the enactment of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. But in the preamble to the NFFWP, the government has now linked the idea of the Act to the degree of success experienced in running the NFFWP experiment. According to the preamble, “The new Food for Work Programme is also a move towards wage employment guarantee. It is an experiment, which if successfully carried out, will give the government the necessary confidence to take responsibility for providing wage employment guarantee, initially in these 150 identified districts and later, gradually in the remaining districts of the country.”


The National Food for Work Programme

The NFFWP has been launched in 150 most backward Districts identified by the Planning Commission in consultation with the Ministry of Rural Development. The Task Force constituted by the Ministry of Rural Development under the Chairmanship of Advisor (RD), Planning Commission selected three variables for computing the index of backwardness, namely (i) agricultural productivity per worker; (ii) agricultural wage rate; and (iii) SC/ST population. The districts identified for the NFFWP include: Andhra Pradesh: Adilabad, Mahbubnagar, Rangareddy, Khammam, Warangal, Nalgonda, Anantpur, Cudappah. Arunachal Pradesh: Upper Subansiri. Assam: Kokrajhar, North Cachar Hills, Karbi Anglong, Dhemaji, North Lakhimpur. Bihar: Araria, Vaishali, Gaya, Madhubani, Muzaffarpur, Nawadah, Samastipur, Sheohar, Katihar, Jamui, Lakhisarai, Monghyr, Purnea, Supaul, Darbhanga. Chhattisgarh: Bastar, Dantewada, Kanker, Koria, Sarguja, Jaspur, Dhamatri, Raigarh, Bilaspur, Rajnandgaon. Gujarat: Dangs, Dohad, Panch Mahals, Sabarkantha, Narmada, Banaskantha.Haryana: Satyamev Puram. H.P: Chamba. J&K: Doda, Kupwara. Jharkahand : Saraikela, Singhbhum West, Godda, Simdega, Gumla, Chatra, Garhwa, Palamau, Latehar, Lohardagga, Dumka, Jamtara, Sehebganj, Pakur. Karnataka : Chitradurga, Davanagere, Bidar. Kerala: Wayanad. Madhya Pradesh. Jhabua, Mandla, Umaria, Shahdol, Barwani, Khargone, Shivpuri, Sidhi, Tikamgarh, Balaghat, Chattarpur, Betul, Khandwa, Seopur, Dhar. Maharashtra : Gadchiroli, Gondya, Chandrapur, Dhule, Nandurbar, Hingoli, Nanded, Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Yawatmal, Bhandara. Manipur: Tamenlong. Meghalaya : South Garo Hills. Mizoram : Siaha. Nagaland: Mon. Orissa: Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Mayurbhanj, Sundergarh, Keonjhar, Phulbani, Boudh, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Sambalpur, Ganjam, Deogarh, Jharsuguda, Sonepur, Bolangir, Dhenkanal. Punjab: Hoshiarpur. Rajasthan: Banswara, Dungarpur, Udaipur, Sirohi, Karauli. Sikkim: North Sikkim. Tamil Nadu: Tiruvannamalai, South Arcot/Cuddalore, Villupuram, Nagapattinam. Tripura: Dhalai. Uttaranchal: Champawat, Tehri Garhwal. Uttar Pradesh: Sonbhadra, Unnao, Raebareli, Sitapur, Hardoi, Fatehpur, Lalitpur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Banda, Chitrakoot, Mirzapur, Kushinagar, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Barabanki. West Bengal: Purulia, Malda, West Midnapur, Bankura, West/North Dinajpur, Murshidabad.

The NFFWP will be open to all rural poor who are in need of wage employment and desire to do manual and unskilled work. The focus of the programme will be on works relating to water conservation, drought proofing (including afforestation/tree plantation) and land development. Flood-control/protection (including drainage in waterlogged areas), rural connectivity in terms of all-weather roads and any other similar activity for economic sustainability, keeping in view the area specific problems, can be included provided the principal focus of the programme on water conservation and drought proofing is maintained. Foodgrains would be given as part of wages under the NFFWP to the rural poor at the rate of 5 Kg. per manday. More than 5 kg foodgrains can be given to the labourers under this programme in exceptional cases subject to a minimum of 25% of wages to be paid in cash. The State Governments will take into account the cost of foodgrains paid as part of wages, at a uniform BPL rate. The workers will be paid the balance of wages in cash, such that they are assured of the notified Minimum Wages.

Let us next take up the vital issue of funding rural employment guarantee. Some economists have estimated that employment guarantee would cost Rs. 53,000 crore to cover 40% of the households and Rs. 44,100 crore to cover 33% of the households. [Even if 100 days of employment is provided only to those below the poverty line the cost works out to nearly Rs. 40,000 crore. The calculations assume that each person-day of employment generated will cost Rs. 100 at 2004-5 prices. This includes roughly Rs. 60 as wages and Rs. 40 for the non-labour component including administrative costs. Then, 100 days per poor household on average is fixed as the benchmark for the initial extent of employment generation. Combining these two, it is estimated that the annual cost of a full-fledged Employment Guarantee Programme can be derived by multiplying the number of households below poverty line by Rs. 10,000. The rural population below the poverty line as per Census 2001 estimates in 20 crores, which amounts to 4 crore households (5 per family). The cost of the Act’s entitlement thus works out Rs. 40,000 crore per year at 2004-5 prices or 1.3% of the GDP.]

By contrast, P Chidambaram has provided only Rs. 2,000 crore for rural employment this year. This means that if 10 crore people are paid Rs. 50 per head then only 4 days of employment would be created! There are more than 40 million rural labourers according to the government Census data. The UPA government has done exactly what the earlier Vajpayee government did – it has merged some of the existing employment schemes with only a moderate additional allocation and is trying to sell the old wine with a new label.

Raising funds for implementation of 100 days of work for all rural labourers is no big deal. Some economists have pointed out that the tax-GDP ratio in India has consistently fallen during the years of globalisation and liberalization. If the tax-GDP ratio were to be raised to the 1991 level that would generate an additional revenue to the tune of 2.5% of the GDP, more than enough to guarantee employment to the rural poor. India’s tax-GDP ratio stands at around 15% while it is 37% in OECD countries. Moreover, if the Indian ruling classes can spend Rs. 77,000 crore on defence, why can’t they spend Rs. 40,000 to 45,000 crore on such an important social issue like rural employment guarantee?

There is nothing in the Draft about guaranteeing its enforcement. No administrative punishment or legal penalty for higher officials has been provided for in the case of non-implementation of this Act. (Only the low-level Programme Officers have been offered some penalty.) The Collector, who is the ultimate in-charge, has been left out of any penalty.

Instead of every able-bodied person, only one member per household has been promised employment in the Draft. This would discriminate against women. This is based on feudal concepts like ‘breadwinner’ of the family and ‘head’ of the family. The participation of women in the workforce among agricultural labourers is quite high, especially in some states like Andhra Pradesh it is as high as 74%, so much so that some academics have described this as ‘feminisation of labour’. Women’s participation in work goes a long way towards their empowerment. The present Draft, if implemented, would deprive women and youth of whatever work they are now getting under the food-for-work programmes. What is needed is a universal employment guarantee and not just for one-in-a-family. The Draft Act’s definition of “family” is also absurd – it includes both nuclear family as well as joint family. Imagine employment guarantee for only one member of a joint family of ten!

The people cannot decide on the schemes to be taken up under the proposed EG Act. There is no guarantee that part of the money meant for labourers would be diverted for materials and machines as it happens under the JRY. There is no separation of wage component and materials component in the Draft Act and one therefore cannot help suspect the possibility of diversion of wage funds to contractors’ fee or for materials. Contractors should be abolished and work should be given directly to the cooperatives/collectives of the labourers.

The Draft Act promises only 100 days of work per year. Originally 100 days of work was considered supplementary to the agricultural work. Now studies reveal that an agricultural labourer, on an average, gets work for only 70 days per year. This has progressively reduced from 120 days to 70 days during the years of globalization. Moreover, when there is acute year-long drought, in rain-fed areas the agricultural labourers don’t get even 70 days of agricultural work. In backward areas of high agricultural surplus population also they don’t get even 70 days of assured work. Hence “Employment Guarantee” Act itself is a misnomer. It is only supplementary employment Act! The employment guarantee must not be limited to 100 days in the Act.

Minimum wages differ in different states. Some states have not upgraded minimum wages for more than a decade. In some states the statutory minimum wages are far below the prevailing market wages. For instance, in Coastal AP, Punjab and Kerala. In Coastal Andhra, labourers who get Rs. 60-80 as market wages are least interested in taking up government employment schemes which pay the statutory minimum wage of Rs. 42. The Employment Guarantee Act is an all-India act but there is no all-India minimum wages act. The Centre only issued a model all-India notification which was not binding on the states. Hence a constitutional amendment is needed for an all-India minimum wages Act.

There is no special component for women in the Draft Act, like lesser number of working hours per day in view of their household burdens like cooking and taking care of children etc., and selection of projects to be taken up like drinking water schemes, rural lavatories etc., which are of special significance to women.

Child labour laws define child labour as by those below 14 years of age. This Draft Act defines “Adult” as 18 years of age. There are too many youth working who are between 14-18 years of age. This is an anomaly. The Act should cover all those above 14 years of age.

The Draft Act says that only “productive works” should be taken up without defining what is a ‘productive work’. This is a catch. It is not clear whether rural housing, drinking water schemes like digging of wells, rural latrines etc. constitute ‘productive’ schemes. Moreover the Andhra experience in JRY shows that the vested interests decide on development works for upper caste landlord areas and make use of dalit labour for that. There is no inbuilt guarantee against such discrimination in the Act.

The Draft Act says that the applications for employment under the act shall be for a minimum of 14 continuous days and it doesn’t say anything about weekly holidays, festival holidays and sick ‘leave’/discontinuity in between 14 days.

Unemployment allowance at one-third of the statutory minimum wage is ridiculous. It should be at least 80% of the minimum wage.

There should be no deduction from wages for welfare schemes as mentioned in the Draft.

The employment guarantee is applicable to the own village of the labourers or within 5 kms radius around their village. But there are millions of migrant labourers and they cannot migrate to Pubjab to get a few days of agricultural work and go back to Orissa or Bihar to get 14 days of EG work. There is nothing to compensate for the unemployed days in the migrated area.

A large number of rural poor have migrated to urban areas and are eking out a living with lots of difficulties in urban slums. The employment guarantee should also be extended to cover urban areas.

The share of central and state governments in the cost of the scheme has not been clearly spelt out.

The Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra is said to be the inspiration behind this all-India act. But the Maharashtra scheme is an utter failure as proved by large number of starvation deaths among tribals in the state. The success of any employment guarantee depends on guaranteeing its implementation.

The left parties are silent about these negative features of the Draft. The most interesting thing about this is that the CPI(M) is opposing this Draft for wrong reasons. According to the Draft, if the government is not able to provide 100 days of employment then one member of a household would be paid unemployment allowance. If a person is not allotted employment within 15 days of his/her application then payment of unemployment allowance to that person is mandatory. The state government will have to foot the bill to pay this unemployment allowance. Hence, the West Bengal government has opposed this Draft. While the CPI(M)’s AIAWU(All India Agricultural Workers’ Union) has welcomed the Draft uncritically, the West Bengal government has opposed this on the ground that the state cannot provide unemployment allowance in case job cannot be guaranteed as provided for in the Draft. In fact, the LF government has already abolished its own unemployment assistance scheme of providing a meagre Rs. 50 to the unemployed per month which was followed till 2001, under the pretext that the state government did not have funds for the scheme.

The employment scenario in the country is pretty grim, especially rural employment. Between 1983-84 and 1993-94 the annual growth rate of employment in agriculture was 2.23%. During 1993-94 to 1999-2000 it fell drastically to 0.02%, not even covering the population growth and the growth in the labour force. The daily status unemployment rate in rural areas increased from 5.63 per cent in 1993-94 to 7.21 per cent in 1999-00. According to some other sources, the growth of agricultural employment which still accounts for more than 60 percent of overall employment declined in absolute terms over this period. Rural non-farm employment growth, where the large number of residual workers from agriculture transit, also showed slower employment growth (3.28 and 2.14 percent per annum during 1983-93 and 1994-2000 respectively). The overall employment growth in the economy dropped from 2.04 per cent during 1983-93 to 0.98 per cent per annum during 1994-2000. On the contrary, the central allocation on rural wage employment programme came down from 0.40 percent of GDP in 1995-6 to 0.13 percent of GDP in 2000-1, and that on special programmes for rural development fell from 0.08 to 0.03 percent of GDP.

The right to work is very much a fundamental democratic demand. Right to work – and unemployment allowance in case of inability by the state to provide work – is very much possible under the bourgeois state. In fact, it is being implemented in almost all developing countries. ‘Right to work’ figures in the Constitution of 30 countries including 18 developed countries and it is high time India also enacted it. The Indian Constitution refers to the Right to Work under the “Directive Principles of State Policy.” Article 39 urges the State to ensure that “citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means to livelihood.” Further, Article 41 stresses that “the State, shall within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing Right to Work…” Though so far the Indian government has created labour-intensive rural works programmes, these are not based on the Right to Work. They are just additional employment opportunities. The poor need legal entitlement for right to work. Employment guarantee in rural areas is very urgent. The government should be forced to come up with a revised Draft/Bill without the above-mentioned negative features and pass the bill in the parliament at the earliest. q