OrissaMatters Bureau

New Delhi

With the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill (NREGB) unanimously in both the Houses of Parliament this week, the right to work has been recognized as a legal right for the first time in India�s history.

Though limited to only 100 days of employment per rural household per year at a meager 60 rupees per day, the Bill makes the Government legally bound to provide unskilled manual work within 14 days to any rural households which apply for work failing which it will have to pay compensation. The Bill, to be implemented in 200 districts initially, will be extended to the entire country within five years.

The passage of the Bill witnessed some lively debates in both the Houses. Introducing it, Rural Development Minister Mr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh termed the Bill a �historic step� in fulfilling the first commitment in UPA�s National Common Minimum Programme. The BJP-led NDA, which had earlier declared its opposition to the Bill, seemed more than eager to rectify it by assuming a dramatically opposite stance in its favour. Taking part in the debate in Lok Sabha, Mr. Dharmendra Pradhan, BJP MP from Orissa, termed the Bill as �revolutionary�� and demanded it to be extended to the whole of the country including urban areas and for all of 365 days in a year. Sharply attacking the government for providing a lowly wage of 60 rupees per day, he said the government was playing with the poor in the pretext of fiscal burden at a time when the salaries and allowances of MPs were being raised.

Left Pressure

Earlier, under intense pressure from the Left parties, the government had to incorporate some last minute changes and abandon a few controversial clauses. The earlier proposal to target the Below Poverty Line (BPL) households was dropped in favour of bringing all rural households into its fold. A clause, which provided for stopping of work in a district in the case of any reporting of corruption, had to be abandoned because it was condemned as an attempt to punish the poor for the evil deeds of government officials and contractors. The government also agreed to bear 90 percent of the implementation cost to which the States would contribute the remaining 10 percent instead of an earlier provision for 25 percent. A provision for 33 percent reservation in the wage works for women was also introduced.

Activists worried over wage

The People�s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG), a coalition of mass organizations which spearheaded the sustained campaign in favour of the Bill right from its inception, has welcomed the passing of the Bill. It has, however, expressed dissatisfaction over some clauses, particularly the household approach and the wage rate of Rs. 60. �The Bill does not entitle each individual to get work of 100 days unlike what had been originally proposed. Fixing the wage at 60 rupees will also do an enormous disservice to workers in many States where the minimum wages are substantially higher, for example in Kerala where it is Rs. 134,� says Jean Dreze, convener of the PAEG and a former of National Advisory Council which drafted the original Bill. Aruna Roy, NAC member and co-convener of PAEG, terms the Government�s action as unconstitutional because it contravenes the Minimum Wages Act of 1948 which empowers individual States to fix their own wage rates.

The Bill has raised substantial interest in the country as well as abroad. Viewed as the biggest ever initiative of the Indian State in committing itself to welfare duties after a trend of withdrawal, it is being seen as an effective tool against poverty, if implemented sincerely and properly.

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