OrissaMatters Bureau

New Delhi:

A banner showing signatures of people from rural India demanding employment guarantee. The lines read: “Give work to everyone, give proper wage to every work.” Photo: Panini Anand

Even as Delhi begins to cool down after the arrival of monsoon, the UPA government doesn�t seem to have any reprieve from heat wave. It is not only beginning to feel the heat from Left allies over disinvestment of BHEL and the �navratnas�, but also from a quarter it least anticipated.

Over 150 organisations and thousands of people across the country have formed a broad coalition- People�s Action for Employment Guarantee- to mobilise public opinion and build pressure on the Central government to enact what can be the first step in the history of independent India of realising the right to work, hitherto a part of the directive principles of state policy. Pressure is now mounting on Dr. Manmohan Singh to adopt immediately the pending formulation for employment guarantee.

Addressing a press conference organised by the People�s Action at Press Club in New Delhi on 28th June 2005, eminent social activist Ms. Aruna Roy demanded that the UPA government must immediately enact a National Employment Guarantee Act (EGA) in fulfilment of its commitment to the Common Minimum Programme. Reminding the government that it came to power only on this basis, Roy warned, �no government can morally or rightfully claim to remain in power without doing anything for the poor�.

Aruna Roy addresses media persons at Press Club in New Delhi on 28th June. Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy looks on. Photo: Panini Anand

Ms. Roy is a member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), which pressed for and prepared the original draft of the EGA.

This Act was envisaged to provide for entitlement to work to everyone who was willing to do unskilled manual labour at statutory minimum wage within 15 days of application for work. If employment cannot be provided then unemployment allowance had to be given.

However, concerned citizens and civil society groups have been alleging lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Congress-led UPA govt. in passing the EGA. Though a National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill has been tabled in Parliament on 21 December 2004, it is wrought with so many amendments that many say it defeats the very purpose of employment guarantee. Instead of being universal in being open to all adults, unrestricted to any number of days in a year, irreversible so that no can roll back this guarantee, national in coverage and giving minimum wages, the Bill is now limited to Rural, one person per BPL household and 100 days of unskilled manual employment only. Moreover, there is neither guarantee of minimum wages nor any provision to hold the government officials accountable for not providing work. Many believe the �targeting� of the provision, as the present Bill adopts, only to BPL households will exclude millions of the poor, because the government�s list of BPL families is not only highly erroneous but also excludes millions of the actual poor in the country.

Just as the Bill, since languishing with a Standing Committee of Parliament for over six months, is being worked upon of late in anticipation of the monsoon session, campaigners for the Act have decided to turn the heat straight on the government by demanding restoration of the original form of the draft Act. A two-month long rozgar adhikar yatra (convoy for the right to employment), starting from Delhi on 13 May, has already been travelling through ten States, mostly in the food-for-work districts, mobilising public opinion through village public meetings, street rallies, public hearings, seminars, street plays and songs. While the yatra is scheduled to return to New Delhi on July 1, three of its leading activists spoke to media persons at Press Club.

Ms. Roy said the Act was meant to provide the right to work to the poor workers in the unorganised sector. She alleged that the government was now trying to evade its responsibility by introducing a diluted Bill, which was quite restricted in scope. The People�s Action, she said, had been demanding for a universal, irreversible and unrestricted Act with national coverage, ensuring payment of minimum wages and equal participation of women. Only in this form could the original purpose of the Act be fulfilled, Ms. Roy noted.

Ever since its conception, the proposed EGA has seen some heated debates among academicians and intellectuals. Pro-market economists oppose the Act saying it will incur huge expense on the State and fizzle out the �recent economic growth� in the country. They also contend that �poverty having been reduced dramatically� and the �poor becoming better off�, there is no justification for this Act. On the other hand, a host of eminent economists like Prof. Prabhat Patnaik, Utsa Patnaik, Jayati Ghosh, Amit Bhaduri, among others, have been calling such claims as bluff. Citing that the so called �economic growth� has benefited only a small section of the population where as the country has been witnessing unprecedented agrarian distress in the rural areas, and loss of livelihoods, income and employment for a vast majority of the poor in the past decade, they have been demanding for increased public spending, for which the EGA, they say, can be the best way. Reputed economist Jean Dreze is in fact spearheading the movement for the EGA by touring the countryside on the yatra.

Dismissing the opposition to the Act on the ground of financial burden, Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University unveiled before the press the economic viability of the Act. The 50,000 crore rupees or so to be spent for implementing the Act as wage payment, he said, would raise the income of millions of poor families, in turn increasing their demand for goods and thereby expanding production and market. A �multiplier effect� would be set in motion generating further income and employment in various sectors of the economy, he added.

�The EGA can be an effective tool to build rural infrastructure too,� Prof. Chenoy said. Terming the Act as a �profoundly democratic measure�, he said, �No social or economic justice can be established without income and employment generation for the poor masses.�

Aruna Roy addresses media persons at Press Club in New Delhi on 28th June. To her left are Prof. Kamal Mitra Chenoy and Annie Raja. Photo: Panini Anand

Speaking at the press conference, Annie Raja, secretary of the National Federation for Indian Women, narrated instances of �blatant violations of guidelines of food-for-work programmes in the countryside� which she found out while travelling through half of the food-for-work districts as a part of the yatra. �The food-for-work programme should be stopped giving way to Employment Guarantee Act so that those who violate it can be tried for violation of the Constitution,� she said. However, she demanded that EGA be passed immediately in its originally drafted form since the present Bill �has been diluted and offers no guarantee of employment in the real sense.�

As a continuation of the campaign, the People�s Action for Employment Guarantee has planned for a massive day-long jan manch (people�s platform) on July 2 at Constitution Club, New Delhi, where the yatris along with hundreds of activists and common people will present their testimonies, besides asking political parties and the UPA government about their commitment to providing employment guarantee to the poor.

Major political parties, including the Left, having confirmed their participation in the Jan Manch, the Manmohan Singh government will find it hard not to answer. And looking at how public mobilisation and campaign succeeded in compelling the government to enact the Right to Information Act, a National Employment Guarantee Act may soon become a reality.

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