A reminder to Vasundhara Raje

Why employment has to be guaranteed through an Act, not a scheme

 
By Jitendra
Published: Monday 30 November -0001

Why employment has to be guaranteed through an Act, not a scheme

There is anecdotal evidence of jobs being provided to people on demand under MGNREGA. This would not have been possible if there was no legislation in place to empower the rural poor

Erstwhile kings of India believed in helping the poor by giving them alms. Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who belongs to a royal family, wants to return to this tradition, it would seem. After diluting labour laws in her state, Raje set off a debate by writing a letter to Union rural development minister, Nitin Gadkari, questioning the national employment guarantee Act (MGNREGA). “Why cannot rural employment be guaranteed through a scheme instead of an Act?” she asked.

The letter reveals the government's uneasiness with accountability, which MGNREGA demands. The welfare schemes Raje appears to want to club MGNREGA with have no such legal force and totally depend on the whims of the government as to whether it wants to assign work or not.

The Constitution of India grants “right to work”, and it was under this provision that MGNREGA was framed. When this Act was passed in 2005, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Raje's party), which was in opposition then, had supported the Act which gives at least 100-days of guaranteed employment as a legal entitlement to all rural households. The Act replaced the “Food for work” scheme. The International Labour Organization had termed it as world's largest and most ambitious social security programme.

Since its implementation, MGNREGA has empowered common rural masses and checked distress migration. It was for the first time in their life or say in their family histories that they get some kind of luxury of bargaining their rightful entitled wage. It helped them to get out of the vicious circle of bonded labour.

Currently, there are about 300 million MGNREGA job card holders belonging to more than 130 million households across the country. They get unskilled jobs and there is no gender bias in payment. It was impossible to think of equal pay for equal work before this Act.

Though implementation of MGNREGA was tardy, the Act makes government authorities accountable. There are average 44 days of work generated per household every year because of the Act. A minuscule number of total beneficiaries get the guaranteed 100 days of work. There are innumerable success stories of how government was forced to provide jobs on public demand and corrupt officials were brought to book. Now, the Act has provision of unemployment compensation in case work is not provided on demand.

Before the advent of MGNREGA, there had been innumerable rural development schemes. But their impacts were never felt as in the case of this Act. Those schemes were hampered by bureaucratic red tape, lack of accountability, and heavy dependence on the whims of local authorities.

Even one of the proposers of MGNREGA, Aruna Roy, reacting to Raje's letter, told Down to Earth that social welfare in form of schemes brings “feudalism, patronage and discretionism”. “After all, it would seem government wants to escape accountability which a legislated scheme like MGNREGA, entails,” Roy said.      

The timing of the letter being leaked to the media has spurred speculation. The letter was written a month ago but brought to media attention just a few days before the tabling of general budget. It makes one suspicious that it is a planned move to target the social welfare commitment of the Central government. Will the National Food Security Act, which guarantees subsidised foodgrains to more than 800 million people, be the next legislation in line of fire? 

Raje has questioned an Act that was brought into effect with her party’s consent. Would someone please tell her that if there were no Act, guaranteed employment programme would have ended many years ago.

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