A right to work yatra

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST

The Rozgar Adhikar Yatra, covering 10 States, seeks to pressure the Union government to revise the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill so that it guarantees universal and irreversible employment.

KALI BAI, a tribal woman who heads a self-help group in Khandera village in Banswara district of Rajasthan takes both my hands in hers and asks: "Can you bring me work? Any kind of work will do. The officials keep quoting `BPL-APL' to us. I don't have a BPL [Below Poverty Line] ration card, but after ten years of drought, how can anyone not be poor? Please don't divide poor Adivasis on BPL-APL lines. We are all looking for work desperately."

When asked how he survived the years of drought, Dhoda Meena, from Chandravasa village of Dungarpur district, snaps: "We survive by migrating to Gujarat. We survive by eating half our fill, by eating half a meal a day. That's how!"

Munnubai, a Garasiya tribal woman from Kuran village in Pali district, has grandchildren but is still looking for work at construction sites. "We get food for only one month in a year. The men have gone to towns looking for work, but women cannot go outside a five-mile radius [eight-kilometre] because there are small children to look after." Munnubai's "household" has 18 children, of which only one person will be entitled to work if the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, 2004, is passed in its present form.

THESE were testimonies heard along the route when the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra (Right to Work Convoy), which is campaigning for a full-fledged, universal and irreversible Employment Guarantee Act (EGA), passed through Rajasthan.

The bus yatra, organised by the People's Action for Employment Guarantee, a conglomerate of over 150 civil society groups, was launched from Delhi on May 13. It intends to cover 10 States - Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh - and will culminate in Delhi after 48 days on the road.

The purpose of the yatra is to put pressure on the Central government to replace the draft bill it has introduced in Parliament with an undiluted version based on the original draft prepared by the National Advisory Council (NAC).

To this end, the bus is moving through villages and towns, stopping at street corners, at highway dhabas, in marketplaces, and so on. Speeches, songs, poetry, street plays, puppetry, and slogans like Trishul nahin, talwar nahin; kaam ka adhikar chahiye ("We do not want trishuls or swords; we want the right to work") form part of the campaign strategy.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill tabled by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in Parliament in December 2004 is being denounced as a "facade exercise" that does little credit to the right to work. The Bill promises a minimum of 100 days of employment to every poor household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. If an eligible applicant is not provided such employment within 15 days of receipt of making an application, he/she shall be entitled to a daily unemployment allowance, the rate of which will be specified by the State governments.

But certain clauses in the Bill make it an inadequate exercise. Some of them are: (a) It applies only to rural areas, and does not cater to the urban poor; (b) there is no assurance that there will be a definite unemployment allowance in case the government is unable to provide work; (c) only those who hold BPL cards will be considered for work; (d) a rural "household" is treated as a unit, instead of considering each individual who seeks work; (e) there is no accountability at the local level; and (f) it is restricted to only 150 "backward" districts and is not applicable across India.

The Rozgar Yatra has the support of academic and political heavyweights, including former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, activist-author Arundhati Roy, social activist Swami Agnivesh, economists such as Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, and Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan and other Left leaders.

V.P. Singh says that the clause about the "poor" should be removed. "There should be no restriction on who gets work or not. Whoever is willing to take up physical labour should be considered poor. Who would lift stones all day if he didn't need the money so badly? The BPL clause should be removed," he said.

Annie Raja of the National Federation for Indian Women points out that the demand for such a law is not a new one. "But it was a shock to us when the promise of full-fledged legal guarantee was reduced to a food-for-work programme restricted to 150 `backward' districts. Other inadequacies are that the rural `household' is treated as a unit. This means the women will surely be deprived of work."

Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, seeks to expose the sham of India's poverty line. "Government statistics say that poverty in India has reduced and that only 27 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. But if you actually investigate, you will find that 65 per cent is below it. In rural areas, over 80 per cent of the population are below it. This whole poverty line is a fake one. The official rural poverty line applies to people who make Rs.334 a month, or Rs.11.3 daily. These figures are too low. If you think of what it actually costs to live, you'll find at least 74.5 per cent of the population is BPL," he argues.

A clause in the Bill says that projects will be implemented "in such rural areas in the State, and for such period, as may be notified by the Central government". This gives the government a switch-off option, which is against the idea of a "guarantee". Also, the Bill does not speak of minimum wage laws. It says "the Central government may, by notification, specify the wage rate for the purposes of this Act."

Prof. Jean Dreze, who is a member of the NAC, puts the clauses into perspective: "The EGA is supposed to bring security to people's lives. We want it made irreversible, because what sort of guarantee is this if you can take it away? You can't switch a law on and off. All we are asking for is very basic safeguards. This is also a great opportunity to bring minimum wage laws into force."

Another demand made by the campaigners is that economic planning be decentralised. According to them, gram sabhas should decide what kind of projects should be undertaken, so that people get the infrastructure they need. Similarly, the monitoring system should begin with panchayats so that the implementing agency is accountable to the village's elected body. In the Bill, the District Collector is responsible for monitoring, which means a vertical system of accountability.

About Rs.40,000 crores will be needed to extend the guarantee to everyone across the country. The government has protested that it cannot afford to spare so much money.

But Prof. H.M. Desarda, economist and a former member of the Maharashtra State Planning Board, points out that his State has been the model upon which similar campaigns are based. "Employment requires state intervention; it cannot be left to market forces. We have the resources to implement a full-fledged, universal, undiluted, employment guarantee law in India. In Maharashtra, we have had it for about 30 years now; so far, at least Rs.10,000 crores has been spent, and some 4,000 million mandays of work has been generated. And this need not be a charity scheme. This is about entitlement leading to empowerment," he said.

Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), agrees. "Money is not being thrown away. The state will actually save money with the creation of infrastructure. Besides, you have to recognise that some regions will always be dependent on state-sponsored work. Rajasthan is a drought-prone State. You have to have a continuous work programme, not an intermittent project-based system. Even the Rajwada kings used to organise relief projects so that people could live with dignity. Another problem is large-scale migration. Jaipur alone has more than 50,000 labourers in the labour mandis [markets]."

The labourers at Rampul Chowk, Lajpat Nagar, form one of many labour mandis in New Delhi. Here, painters, masons and construction workers alike agree that had work been available in their own villages, they would not have come to the capital. Suresh Chand, who has been in Delhi for more than 25 years, says that most people do not get work for more than three months a year even in the city. "In Delhi, we end up spending Rs.800-1,000 to live in some kind of shelter. We barely manage to save Rs.200-500 to send home. It would be better in our villages," he said.

For State governments, the EGA will provide a big opportunity. At the cost of the Central government, they will be able to generate employment, create infrastructure and stem immigration into big cities. But surprisingly the State governments have not been pressuring the Centre on this law.

However, those who demand a revision of the draft Bill also suggest the inclusion of a penalty for States that fail to create work. It is suggested that if no work is made available, then an allowance be paid to the unemployed, at the rate of one-third the minimum wage for the first 30 days of unemployment and half the minimum wage after that.

Prof. Dreze says: "Universal allocation is not a ridiculous idea. It is as universal as the public distribution system. And it is an incentive for State governments - they have to pay an allowance only if they fail to implement projects. At least, the people will not starve."

Nilotpal Basu, Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), admitted that the passage of the Bill had been manipulated in Parliament. "The Parliamentary Standing Committee is just standing. There are difficulties in realising the kind of Act we want, and within the government too there are forces that think it is a big waste. The current Bill has limitations, but they can be rectified. However, the nature of the Bill is such that it cannot be translated into a law without people's intervention."

This sentiment was echoed by CPI national secretary D. Raja. "Employment guarantee is a major concern and commitment. A people's movement has to be organised, because nothing in this country gets done without it."

It has been over five months since the Parliamentary Standing Committee, chaired by former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, has even met to discuss the Bill. But Prof. Desarda blames the UPA for the delay and the dilution of the Bill. He said: "When it came to patent laws, the government issued an ordinance, and the Bill was passed later. Why can they not do the same for the EGA?"

He adds a note of warning to those in power. "Since the wave of reforms in 1992, the Congress has had to learn some hard lessons, sitting in the Opposition. In this context, the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) was brought into the manifesto. With regard to employment guarantee, the Congress manifesto had promised to provide `100 days of work, to begin with'. This promise was meant for lower middle class groups as well, and not just those below the poverty line. The CMP is an underscoring of all things that are of priority. Whatever other policies are brought into force, the government cannot renege on the CMP promise. These are issues of life and death for the people; they cannot be postponed."

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