Monday, May 19, 2008

14. REFLECTION. Reinvent employment guarantee!

Should employment guarantee mean minion labour for the poor? Could there not be other ways in which the state can compensate its poor?

Suspecting me to be a government official, the tribal in village Gunnar in Koraput district of Orissa rushed forward with their job cards. Not having seen a magic job card that ensures 100 days of guaranteed employment under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), I was curious to have a careful look at it. To my surprise, all the 42 cards in a 45-household village were blank. Not a single day worth of job was ushered to any of the poor tribals during the past two years. Second year of the UPA government's flagship scheme had come to a close, signalling that almost a million from the country's taxpayers money have been siphoned off from just one village.

With the scheme been extended to the entire country, previously restricted to 330 districts, securing employment rights of such hapless villagers has only become more compelling. While there have been success stories in NREGA files, exceptions fail to correct the abysmal failure of the scheme that could generate only 18 days of average employment across the country during the first two years. In the process, Rs 12,000 crore of taxpayers' money was devoured last year. Incompetent state machinery, riddled with corruption, will only better its previous year's achievement!

All said, the proponents of the scheme argue that there is nothing wrong per se in the idea of assured employment to the rural poor. That all governmental schemes of this magnitude invariably fall short of its targets must therefore be accepted as given. That a large fraction of the money ending up in the pockets of various intermediaries at the cost of the poor must not be frowned upon. An editorial in one of the business magazines has estimated that, in 596 districts where the scheme is being implemented, some 4,000 new millionaries will be created if the money siphoning process is not reversed.

Can the NREGA be made to deliver any better? Spending huge amount of manpower to create non-tangible assets such as kuccha roads, which will be washed away during the rains, could ensure employment but cannot create durable assets. Cleaning of village ponds and creation of water bodies may seem tangible but there is a limit to which these could be done, year after year. No wonder, some economists have even suggested enacting a law to help the government make a minimum monetary transfer to poor households every year. It is argued that if digging the earth is an excuse to distribute money, direct disbursements are sure to work better!

As the employment guarantee scheme transits into new areas, more questions related to defining `wage work' have started to surface. Farmers in drought-ravaged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh wonder if tilling one's own land could be considered worthy of wage compensation. Why dig a pit in no-man's land when similar effort can help prepare a piece of farm for cultivation instead? Villagers in Sangrur district of Punjab desire that the workforce they hire from other states should be covered under the employment guarantee scheme, even if it amounts to direct subsidy.

The crucial question, however, is whether the state finds comfort in converting its massive rural communities into minion labour. Further, creating dependent millions may become a huge financial liability too. Can the poor farmers not barter their knowledge instead? Should the tribal not be compensated for preserving country's natural assets? There are several ways in which the productive potential of the economically poor could be assessed, measured and compensated. The poor harbour in them the living culture of survival techniques, of livelihoods ecology, of exquisite handmade objects, and of passionate folk songs.

The tribal households in Gunnar could do without wage labour provided the state can compensate them for their low-carbon lifestyle, evolved after centuries of living in harmony with nature. Converting such vibrant cultures to menial labour is also a crime, when the opportunity cost of such transformation is considered. There has been talk of initiatives to make communities stakeholders in conservation. These financial incentives should not be seen as subsidies, but necessary policy interventions to protect the environment and create wealth via the carbon trade route.

The employment guarantee scheme offers an opportunity for its innovative application across diverse situations, provided flexibility in its implementation is permitted. Since such populist measures find political support of all hues, the challenge will be to convert a resource-guzzling scheme into one that generates wealth and self-respect for the economically weaker sections of the society. A bad script that the NREGA is at present can indeed to turned into a good story!

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