While discussing the future of an independent India, in a letter to Nehru in 1945, Gandhi wrote: ‘‘There should be equality between the town-dwellers and the villagers in the standard of food and drink, clothing and other living conditions. In order to achieve this equality today people should be able to produce for themselves the necessities of life and the unit of society should be a village.’’ In today’s circumstances, that vision can best be achieved by a well formulated and effectively implemented Employment Guarantee Act.
But to look at the malady before discussing the remedy, the great majority of India’s population, as well as the predominant part of her poor people, live in the villages. As things stand today there is little employment opportunity in the villages, forcing landless workers especially to migrate to the cities, which overburdens our urban space without doing anything to alleviate poverty in the long run.
No amount of liberalisation or privatisation can effectively challenge either this demographic imbalance, the primacy of the rural over the urban, or the immediate deprivation of the poor. Only the most blasé commentator can expect a poor family to wait 30 years for the trickle-down effect of present policies to pull them out of poverty. Siddharth Dube calculated that Delhi alone would need an industrial growth of an impossible 27 per cent per annum in order to absorb the already existing labour surplus, quite apart from the lakhs that annually migrate into the city.
This has two implications for poverty alleviation and equitable growth. In order to address poverty at its base we need policies that help us generate employment at the rural level. Unless we do so the vicious cycle of rural poverty, urban influx and the consequent municipal chaos will continue apace and the spectre of fortified cities may become a reality sooner than we think. Second, this employment cannot be generated by private entrepreneurs setting up factories or warehouses of private production. Only public action can guarantee the kind of investment and attention that can help push the teeming millions out of a permanent stasis of underdevelopment.
The question then is what kind of public action can best destabilise the morass of poverty in rural India. If it were possible for the local panchayat to provide work to anybody who sought it, at the minimum wage — the building of a check dam, a road or a pond, cooking food at schools, running a crêche for children with working mothers — does it not put money in the most impoverished purses, ensure productive work, check urban migration and enable the development of the country?
Under the provisions of the Employment Guarantee Bill, with the Central Government standing guarantee, in 200 of the poorest districts of the country the State will commit itself to providing compulsory employment, at the minimum wage rate (averaging Rs 60 a day) to one member of every household for a minimum of a 100 days a year. The works so instituted will be monitored by the local panchayat and a special Programme Officer.
If the government fails to provide work on demand it is liable to pay an unemployment allowance to all those who seek work. It aims at universal application and self-targeting which means whoever offers himself/herself for work at the prescribed wages is to be provided employment under the guarantee scheme. While making panchayati institutions-more representative and therefore accountable than state bureaucratese-the nodal hub for the scheme the Act also envisages a concomitant participatory vigilantism. The social audits at the Gram Sabha (the list of beneficiaries and accounts) will be made available free of cost.
The last item is crucial because, as several critics of the Act point out, any new public scheme will only line the pockets of middlemen and be akin to throwing good money after bad. During a Rozgar Yatra, taken out through some of the poorest districts of North India to publicise this Act, we repeatedly came across situations where government money had been disbursed to bogus workers, some of whom were long dead.
However, instituting a guarantee like this, regardless of the pitfalls, is also the only way to increase awareness. An elderly woman who came forward at a nukkad meeting in Sandila in UP during the Yatra complained that the Pradhan of her Panchayat had not paid her an outstanding due of Rs 2000 after she had cooked mid-day meals, khichdi, for the local school for a year. One could as easily conclude from this exchange, the wastefulness of public expense as take heart from the fact that the mid-day meal scheme was being implemented in some form and therefore the state was feeding some children at some place for some time.
For it to be properly implemented the Employment Guarantee Act needs a vigilant working class who are aware of their rights and entitlements. Therefore it will work best in conjunction with other steps, such as implementing a Right to Information Act that would allow workers to examine muster rolls, learn the amounts of funds sanctioned and inspect accounts at the local level, and instituting a minimum wage regime that pays workers in full rather than allowing contractors and their machines-led labour to garner the benefits. It is axiomatic that only a poor and needy person would spend the whole day lifting stones or digging trenches for the minimum wage so it is welcome that the present Bill makes no distinction between men and women, or the holders of Below Poverty Line cards and Ration Cards etc., and those without.
While the current Bill falls far short of expectations raised by the Common Minimum Programme, where it is the first item on the agenda, it is still a giant step for the rural poor. If properly implemented, it can address poverty, empower panchayats and correct the imbalance between rural and urban India.
The writer, who recently participated in a Rozgar Yatra, can be reached at : firstname.lastname@example.org