Employment bill passed

Amended version improves upon original, but not enough

By Kirtiman Awasthi
Published: Thursday 15 September 2005

"... to ensure that a minimum level of employment is available to everyone in rural areas, it is necessary to have an employment guarantee," said prime minister Manmohan Singh in his Independence day speech on August 15, 2005. The government, on August 23-24, 2005, passed in parliament the revised version of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill (nregb) 2004, which provides for 100 days of employment a year for "rural households". Civil society organisations have been demanding such a guarantee for years. The United Progressive Alliance (upa) government had also pledged in its Common Minimum Programme (cmp) to "...immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee Act".

The bill's original version was introduced in parliament in December 2004, which was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for suggestions. Diluting the cmp 's promise of a legal employment guarantee to "...one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle-class household", the bill restricted it to "poor rural households". The revised bill is an improvement, providing minimum 100 days of guaranteed waged employment to one person in all rural households, not only to those "below poverty line". "Still, it talks only about unskilled manual works, leaving out semi-skilled and skilled workers and lower middle class households," points out Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Union rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said the bill "would be initially implemented in 200 districts, including 150 under 'Food for Work' programme, and later extended to all 600 districts in the country" in the next five years. The bill also provides for one-third reservation for women and a minimum daily wage of Rs 60. In states where the minimum wage fixed is more than Rs 60, the higher amount is guaranteed. Chenoy points out that at this rate, the average monthly income for the smallest family of four would come to a mere Rs 125; a person with a monthly income of Rs 300 is considered below poverty line.

Financial obligations of the bill will be fulfilled through a "National Employment Guarantee Fund"; states can also set up such funds. The bill passes the obligation of job guarantee to states -- they have to prepare schemes to implement it within six months of its enactment and finance ten per cent of the schemes. Singh has assured they would be compensated if they suffer from lack of funds. State governments will have to pay an unemployment allowance equal to the minimum wage for 100 days to eligible applicants who aren't provided work. Some obligations have also been passed on to panchayats.

A major challenge facing the bill is the programmes for employment generation. " nregb 2004 envisages employment generation through watershed development, renovation of water bodies, desilting of tanks, afforestation and wasteland restoration," said upa chairperson Sonia Gandhi. But Chenoy feels the definition of work should be widened to include forest-based small scale and village industries.

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