Draughty bill

Rural employment bill draws flak for diluting draft

By Avilash Roul
Published: Monday 31 January 2005

-- the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill tabled in Parliament last month has drawn scathing criticism from the National Advisory Council (nac) that had put together its draft. nac says the rural development ministry has dropped many of the former's recommendations (see box: Serious rift). "Politicians are responsible for the liquidation of nac provisions," remarks Aruna Roy, member, nac . Says Jean Dreze, another nac member, "The nac draft has been extensively revised from the point of view of a bureaucrat anxious to minimise the responsibility of the state."

The bill is a major poll promise of the Congress party and figures in the common minimum programme (cmp) of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. Significantly, Congress President Sonia Gandhi heads nac . Says Annie Raya, an activist who led a huge banner campaign for right to work just outside the Parliament on December 21, the day the bill was tabled, "After liquidation of the provisions, the legitimacy of nac is being questioned." During the nac meeting on January 8, the bill was not even discussed. "We don't have any expectation but only a hope for the bill," says Roy.

nac sent a draft of the bill to the government in November 2004, which asked the Planning Commission (pc) and the Union ministry of finance to examine the viability of guaranteeing rural employment. "It appears the main spanner in the works was put by the finance ministry, although it is possible there was less than desired support from the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission as well," says Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

While the draft recommended rural employment guarantee cover the entire country over five years, the bill omits mention of the time frame completely. The bill guarantees 100 days of employment to every rural household but doesn't say when or where this will apply. Says Ghosh, "This can allow for indefinite postponement of the extension to the entire country."

Similarly, whereas the draft talked of a minimum wage (Rs 66 per day), the bill says, "Notwithstanding anything contained in the Minimum Wages Act 1948, the Central Government may fix the rate at which wages shall be paid to the labourers employed under the (Employment) Programme." Though cmp mentions a centrally funded scheme, pc and the finance ministry have repeatedly tried to pass on the burden to the states.

Experts believe only 1 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (gdp) will be enough to fund the scheme. Public social spending in India is barely 6 per cent of gdp, compared with 17 per cent in the us and 26 per cent in Britain
Another point of criticism is the inclusion of the word 'poor' in the preamble of the bill. Explains Smita Gupta, senior fellow at the Institute of Human Development in Delhi, "The identification of the poor is far from satisfactory, in terms of both the criteria and the procedure. The livelihoods of vast sections of the near-poor, too, are extremely precarious and fragile." The bill talks of providing employment to one member of a household and not to every adult. "Among the poor, many nuclear families often live together -- only one (job) per kitchen unit will exclude large numbers of poor people," reasons Ghosh.

Expand list
Experts want the definition of 'productive work' to generate employment be broadened. "The list should be expanded to include any work that is socially useful and productive, including services like provision of midday meals, or health mobilisation. This will also make it easier to employ more women workers," stresses Ghosh.

The timing of the bill -- presented by Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh just two days before the end of the winter session of Parliament -- has also been denounced. Comments Ghosh, "A lot depends on how the Act finally emerges and of course, how it is implemented."

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.