National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Rural Proletariat in India

C.N. Subramanian

The rural proletariat of India has largely remained a neglected social segment as it has remained unorganised (except in small pockets for brief periods) and is a very diverse social group. As a class it is segmented by tribal, caste, gender affiliations besides consisting of semi-proletarians who own or have access to small plots of land. This segmentation has largely prevented its emergence as a homogenous class to claim its rightful share of produce, let alone mould it into a class fighting for transformation of the social order. Segments of rural proletarians have led mercurial movements for better wages and human treatment and even for land. During the last decade its ranks have swelled as the process of depeasantisation has proceeded apace. Growth of capitalist /commercial agriculture has not meant a growth in employment opportunities for the rural labourers as it has been accompanied by mechanisation. As a result the rural workers have had to supplement their income through foraging in the forests and tending small animals like goats. In many states this segment has had to indulge in seasonal migration to distant states for either farm work or unorganised construction work or work in brick kilns.

The survival of old caste, gender and tribal relations has resulted in multiple exploitations and deprivation of access to vehicles of social mobility like education or free political participation. This has helped to retain a large segment of the rural proletariat as the reserve army of labour for the emerging kulak and landlord farmers. The condition of the rural proletariat steadily worsened in the last decade as rural mechanisation including extensive use of harvester combines etc. grew in leaps and bounds, and rural industries saw a significant decline. This assumed the proportion of a deep crisis, even though it went unnoticed by the bourgeois press gloating over ‘India Shining’ and the growing size of the stock market bubble.

The shrinking of rural employment opportunities and the growing uncertainty of employment has made this segment more and more vulnerable. The various programmes of employment generation failed to alleviate the situation let alone create a framework for secure livelihood.

It is in this context that the campaign for ‘food security’ in the country gathered momentum, deriving its leadership from the well-meaning intelligentsia. The campaign sought to fight the steady erosion of the entitlements of the rural proletariat in the form of the rollback of the Public Distribution System (PDS) of food, lethargic implementation of the midday meal scheme in the schools etc, and dysfunctional rural employment generation schemes.

The campaign gathered strength with the defeat of the BJP led government in the general elections and the victory of the UPA which critically required the support of the Left to form a government in the centre. It was recognised by one and all that this turn of tide was fuelled by deep discontent felt by the rural proletariat and small and marginal farmers with the agrarian policies being followed under pressure of the WTO etc. This realisation among the political elite propelled many of the well-meaning intellectuals into positions from which they could impact policies of the government. Of course they soon realised the futility of this exercise and many of them gradually withdrew from such positions. However, many stuck on and focussed their attention on developing a programme that was part of the promise of the UPA, even when it meant agreeing to a lot of compromises and dilutions.

Thus even as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), has been severely compromised it still remains one of the most progressive social security legislations with immense radical possibilities. While it may appear that it was not backed by any evident mass class action by the rural proletarians, it should be remembered that it was made possible in the first place by the powerful use made of the franchise by the rural poor in the general elections. It was this that ultimately prompted the UPA government to set aside the severe opposition from the industrial and ‘liberalisation’ lobbies.

The bourgeois press and several sections of the powerful industrial lobby campaigned against the enactment using all the standard arguments in their arsenal, that given administrative corruption it will go down the drain, that it will artificially raise rural wage levels and exert inflationary pressures, it will divert scarce resources to wasteful distribution of free lunches etc etc. We will shortly see how the NREGA takes care of many of these motivated arguments against it.

The NREGA aims at setting into motion a complex of processes aimed at providing a minimum income to the rural poor, creation of productive assets in the countryside and at the same time ensuring accountability and transparency in implementation. The NREGA guidelines issued by the Ministry of Rural Employment outlines the goals thus:

Strong social safety net for the vulnerable groups by providing a fall-back employment source, when other employment alternatives are scarce or inadequate;

Growth engine for sustainable development of an agricultural economy. Through the process of providing employment on works that address causes of chronic poverty such as drought, deforestation and soil erosion, the Act seeks to strengthen the natural resource base of rural livelihood and create durable assets in rural areas. Effectively implemented, NREGA has the potential to transform the geography of poverty;

Empowerment of rural poor through the processes of a rights-based Law;

New ways of doing business, as a model of governance reform anchored on the principles of transparency and grass root democracy

Thus, NREGA fosters conditions for inclusive growth ranging from basic wage security and recharging rural economy to a transformative empowerment process of democracy

Such pious objectives are seldom realised on the ground, especially when their implementation eventually depends on an administrative mechanism that is strongly controlled by semi-feudal and kulak elements. The fact however remains that the act provides a scope for organising the rural proletariat for intervention in issues that are wide ranging in scope. In the present article we shall review some of the salient features of the NREGA and the reports of its actual implementation in the field in several provinces prepared by independent agencies. Our concern in this review shall be the potentials of the Act for advancing the movement of the rural proletarians and its implications for the communist movement.

The Act

There are two new critical features that the NREGA introduces into rural employment schemes:

It provides a statutory guarantee of wage employment.

The state is obliged to provide employment within fifteen days of filing of an application, failing which it has to pay an unemployment allowance to the applicant. This is a justifiable right. As such

It provides a rights-based framework for wage employment. Employment is dependent upon the worker exercising the choice to apply for registration, obtain a Job Card, and seek employment for the time and duration that the worker wants

Thus it is not driven by the state schemes for employment generation, but by the workers demanding employment. The act envisages that the employment programme should not be seen by both the administration and the poor as a dole, but as a legitimate right and entitlement of the rural poor.

To ensure the above the NREGA has the following provisions:

Adult members of a rural household, willing to do unskilled manual work, may apply for registration in writing or orally to the local Gram Panchayat

The Gram Panchayat after due verification will issue a Job Card. The Job Card will bear the photograph of all adult members of the household willing to work under NREGA and is free of cost

The Job Card should be issued within 15 days of application.

A Job Card holder may submit a written application for employment to the Gram Panchayat, stating the time and duration for which work is sought. The minimum days of employment have to be at least fourteen.

The Gram Panchayat will issue a dated receipt of the written application for employment, against which the guarantee of providing employment within 15 days operates

Employment will be given within 15 days of application for work, if it is not then daily unemployment allowance as per the Act, has to be paid and the liability of payment of unemployment allowance is of the States.

Work should ordinarily be provided within 5 km radius of the village. In case work is provided beyond 5 km, extra wages of 10% are payable to meet additional transportation and living expenses

Wages are to be paid according to the Minimum Wages Act 1948 for agricultural labourers in the State, unless the Centre notifies a wage rate which will not be less than Rs. 60/ per day.

Gender equity is sought to be ensured through the provision that both men and women should be paid equal wages. At least one third of the workforce should comprise of registered women. The Act also provides for creche etc at the worksite.

The Act seeks to ensure that the Panchayats and gram sabhas plan and supervise and monitor the work so that locally identified needs and resource augmentation can be ensured. Emphasis is to be given to programmes for soil and water conservation, environmental upgradation etc.

So far the act has been implemented in only a few districts of the country during the last two years; The Act was notified in 200 districts in the first phase 2006-7 and then extended to additional 130 districts in the financial year 2007-2008. The remaining districts of the country have been notified under the NREGA with effect from April 2008. Thus NREGA covers the entire country with the exception of districts that are entirely urban. Two years of implementation gives us an opportunity to study the ground level implementation of the Act and to see to what extent the promise is realised. The act has built into it a provision for ‘social audit’ to study the actual impact and has also attracted the attention of scholars and activists who have conducted extensive studies of the implementation of the programme.

The studies generally point to the fact that the NREGA is implemented mostly as any other rural employment programme and its specific features are yet to take root. For example a study of its implementation in four states (Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, MP and Andhra Pradesh undertaken by scholars of JNU and Central University of Hyderabad has the following findings:

The districts where the act is being implemented have a high proportion of rural workers in dire need of employment. Most of them belong to SC and ST categories. Of those who were surveyed, about 20% are entirely landless while nearly 65% are marginal farmers owning less than five acres of land. While indebtedness was low in some states, in states like Andhra Pradesh it was very high. Juvenile malnutrition was alarmingly high. Adult males generally had to migrate in search of work to distant places typically more than 50 Km from their homes.

Awareness of the NREGA was very high in some states like Andhra Pradesh while it was relatively low in states like Jharkhand and MP. Even the local administration had poor information about the act.

In view of the fact that the NREGA is supposed to be a beneficiary driven programme, the low awareness assumes importance. It was therefore found that only a fraction of the people had applied for ‘job cards’ (this was high in AP and low in the other states). The local administration was seldom equipped to handle this. Most people were not aware that once the job card was acquired they had to apply for work. Usually they were invited by the local officials to work – the initiative of the unemployed to get employment was seldom seen.

There were major problems with the wage payments: In many cases workers did not receive the minimum wage even for a full day’s work. The major exception is Andhra Pradesh. Very significant underpayment was observed in some areas, e.g. MP and Chattisgarh – as low as Rs. 6-13 per day for a full day’s digging work. Measurement of work is not made in front of the workers. Payments are often not made on time. There were cases of delay in payments even after money was received at the panchayat level. Women often received lower wages for similar work.

Jean Dreze, the eminent economist-activist who has been in the forefront of the campaign for the NREGA, points out that while the implementation of the act leaves very much to be desired, it has still made a substantial impact on the earnings of the dalits and other deprived sections of the society in the very poor districts of the country.

For example as against the guarantee of at least 100 days of work, an average job card holder only got about 24 days of work. It has been widely reported that despite the guarantee provision unemployment allowance is normally not paid. Part of the problem lies in inadequate financial provision for the act. While a typical district needs an allocation of about Rs. 100 crores, the total budget allocation for 300 districts is a mere Rs. 13000 crores.

Nevertheless, studies like the one mentioned by Dreze show clearly that the principal beneficiaries of the schemes are rural workers from SC and ST background; their share in employment amounts over 60%. Likewise women have had a substantial share of the employment generated – nearly 40%. However this average figure masks a wide regional variation. Several southern states show a very high female participation (55% to 80%) while many northern states the participation is under 20%.

The above brief overview of the experience of the implementation of the NREGA clearly indicates the limitations of progressive legislation which have been enacted under pressure not of masses but by well meaning lobbies. It also demonstrates the problems in implementing such legislations through an administrative set up that is both corrupt and controlled by landlords and kulaks. Nevertheless it opens the possibility for organising the rural poor and mobilising them for realising the promises given in the act. While most political parties including those from the left seem to ignore these possibilities in tune with their general indifference to the rural proletariat, there has been a proliferation of NGO activism in this area. While this has the possibility of bringing about a limited radicalisation of the implementation process, it has little possibility of using this opportunity to generate a wider rural proletarian movement. That task remains before Communists.

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