Thursday, January 31, 2008

Problems in rural employment (this appeared in the New Indian Express, Friday, Feb. 01, 08)

FROM April 1, 2008, all adult members in the villages across India will be entitled to wage labour as a matter of right. This will be an extension of the scheme, now implemented in the rural areas in 330 districts. And the force behind this decision was Rahul Gandhi, the most influential Congress MP today. All he did was to do some loud thinking that NREGS ought to be extended to all parts of the country. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was happy to oblige.

Notwithstanding this and the fact that this will be used by the Congress( I) during its campaign for the next election, the extension of the scheme to all rural districts is a radical step ahead and whether by design or otherwise, it amounts to a commitment by the Government to ensure the rural population the right to work.

This right is restricted to 100 days work in a year for a family that is willing to do manual labour on daily wages. The quantum of wages too will be the same as the minimum wage determined by the respective State Government. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, every family living in the rural areas will be assured Rs 8,000 in a year in addition to whatever they manage to earn otherwise. In Kerala, the rural families will be assured Rs 15,000 in a year, while every rural family in Bihar will be assured Rs 5,500. The daily wages under the NREGS is based on the minimum wages for agricultural workers in theirrespective State.

Most importantly, the villagers across the country, will now be entitled for unemployment allowance. The National Rural Area Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), in this sense, is a radical departure from all other poverty alleviation measures of the past 60 years.Apart from the fact that it explicitly recognizes the people's right to work, it also transgresses social and economic categories insofar as tackling rural poverty is concerned.

Such stipulations as the Below Poverty Line (BPL) or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes do not apply here. The NREGS is based on the simple premise that circulation of money in the villages will ensure an economic growth and that lack of employment in the rural areas is bound to stunt economic growth. Thus NREGS is a programme meant to ensure a steady economic growth.

The quantum of money that will now be assured to the villager may appear too little. But then, this would ensure that the poor will now have money to buy food-grains and so stay alive. The immediate fallout of this would be that a situation where food-grains meant for the public distribution system will no longer remain unutilized as villagers can now have the resources to buy their grain ration.

There are, however, a set of issues that will have to be internalised and addressed to in real earnest before the scheme is implemented in all the 595 rural districts in India. The experience in the 200 districts where the scheme was implemented first from February 2006 and the 130 districts that were included in the scheme later in April 2007 will help draw some important lessons to ensure that the scheme into which so much of thought had gone into is not distorted and made into one more poverty alleviation measure that fails.

Given the potential to distort it into a means to get rich by the political establishment, apprehension is unavoidable. The NREGS accords crucial role to the elected leaders of the gram panchayats and the fact that this section of our political establishment is vulnerable to corruption.

That party politics is an integral part of the panchayats is a truth that cannot be glossed over and one cannot grudge that every elected panchayat president is there waiting to become an MLA and then an MP!The NREGS without doubt is structured in a way that the traditional means by which some politicians employ to siphon funds - engaging machines and contractors - are not allowed. It also contains the provision that the funds allotted and the number of person/days are displayed at the work site and also that the specific projects are discussed in the gram sabha.

These mechanisms and the aspect of social audit are certainly significant measures that will help the scheme work.The gram sabha, for instance, should ensure democracy in the perfect sense of the term. But then, given the caste-based hierarchy that is still the reality in rural India, there is very little in the NREGS that will ensure daily wage employment to the members of the Scheduled Castes as much as it will to the equally poor but more assertive members from the Other Backward Castes.

This is bound to defeat the purpose of the schemeSuch an apprehension is inevitable given the fact that there is zero awareness among the rural people that they are entitled for work on demand and in the event there is no work, the state is bound to pay them unemployment allowance. It is a fact that there has hardly been an instance, hitherto, of unemployment allowance being disbursed in any district where the NREGS has been implemented since February 2006.

This is to say that the NREGS has miles to go before it becomes what it is meant to be.These are some issues that have come up out of the experience of the scheme in the course of its implementation. And it will make sense only when the civil administration and its political masters address these concerns that are bound to come up, before pushing it for implementation across the country.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Hype about the BSP (this appeared in The Economic Times, January 5, 2008)

After the BSP won a simple majority in the Uttar Pradesh assembly, there is hype about Mayawati and her party in the media. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister’s recent visit to Chennai and the BSP’s role, in the elections to the Gujarat assembly, are just a couple of instances of this. An impression is sought to be created that the BSP will end up playing the kingmaker in May 2009 or even earlier if elections to the Lok Sabha are advanced.

The BSP, without doubt, is an important party and will remain a force in the political discourse in Uttar Pradesh for several years. This is not to say that the party’s strength in the next Lok Sabha will go up, in proportion to its strength in the state assembly. In other words, there is no way that the BSP can win 35 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh. The party’s Lok Sabha strength will continue to hover around 19, its strength in the Lok Sabha now. And most of that will come from Uttar Pradesh; the only other state from where the BSP could win Lok Sabha seats would be Karnataka and even there it will not win more than a couple seats.

In Tamil Nadu, where Mayawati called upon the Dalits to unite behind the BSP, there are political parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal (the Dalit Panthers) and the Puthiya Tamilagam that have consolidated into powerful and representative platforms of the Dalits in the northern and the southern districts of the state. This consolidation of the Dalits had been taking place in the past couple of decades against the increasingly violent forms of dominance by the other backward castes, whose members had captured the leadership of the DMK and the AIADMK in the districts and down below.

These Dalit exclusivist platforms have not been able to win more than a couple of assembly seats in the past several years. Even that was possible only with the help of the DMK. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal has two MLAs in the assembly now and the party was an ally in the DMK-led Democratic Front in May 2006. And the Puthiya Tamilagam has no representative in the assembly because it failed to manage a place in the alliance. These two parties have ensured a complete consolidation of the Dalits behind them.

And this helped them contain acts of violence against the community; the emergence of these parties and their organisational growth was carried out in a manner where the youth in the community was mobilised to retaliate with equal force. This has ensured that the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal and the Puthiya Tamilagam continue to sustain themselves as powerful political platforms notwithstanding their inability to emerge as strong groups in the assembly. The BSP has none of these attributes.

Moreover, there is a substantial difference between the social-polity in Tamil Nadu (as well as most other states) and Uttar Pradesh. And that has to do with the significantly large Brahmin population in the state. The proportion of the Brahmins in Tamil Nadu is rather insignificant: just about 3% of the population. It is at least four times more in Uttar Pradesh. This means that the BSP’s chemistry in Uttar Pradesh made of a Dalit-Brahmin social alliance will not mean much in Tamil Nadu in terms of winning elections.

This is true of almost all the states other than Uttar Pradesh.

In Bihar, for instance, the BSP has come a cropper in all elections in the past. In May 2004, for instance, the BSP fielded candidates in all the 40 constituencies and 39 of them forfeited their security deposits. The BSP could not achieve in Bihar what it could in Uttar Pradesh and this was the case even in those parts of Bihar that are contiguous with Uttar Pradesh, and some of them have a substantive Brahmin population too. The reason is historical.

The presence of one or another left group in Bihar including the Maoists have redefined scope of the Dalit agenda in substantive terms and thus closed the potential for the BSP to emerge in Bihar. This is the case with the BSP and Andhra Pradesh too. As for Gujarat, the discourse in the state is substantially different from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar or Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu. The BSP may have polled 2.64% of the votes. This certainly is not a sign of the party having arrived in the state.

Any party with resources could ensure a couple of per cent votes across India in the context where the election laws have been changed to curtail the number of independent candidates (by way of increasing the security deposit). The BSP has been spending its money (and it has a lot to spend) by fielding candidates everywhere and thus been able to garner votes that would have otherwise gone to independents. It helps the party to claim a couple of per cent votes in almost all the states.

This is different from what happened in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP arrived with a bang in November 1989, polling close to 10% of the votes. The party improved its vote percentage in every election after that, when it built further on the Dalit exclusivist agenda and then added the Brahmin votes to its kitty, beginning 1999. This happened because the Brahmin population in Uttar Pradesh is substantive; and also the fact that there are several Brahmins among the ganglords who control the society and politics in Uttar Pradesh.

Hari Shankar Tiwari and Amarmani Tripathi, for instance, are not software professionals or B-school graduates, waiting for a H1-B visa to the US. They have a reputation for possessing weapons and expertise in using them. They are part of the mafia and there are a whole lot of criminal cases pending against them. They refuse to accept that India is now a democracy; and the democratic state too lets them behave the way feudal chieftains do!

The BSP clicked in Uttar Pradesh because Mayawati could muster such men as her supporters; and these lords found it useful to be part of the BSP. The BSP, after all, achieved what it did in 1989 in Uttar Pradesh only because the state did not have a tradition of radical mobilisation of the landless sections of the society as well as the fact that Kanshi Ram had built an organisation, in each and every Dalit locality across Uttar Pradesh without anyone really noticing him do that. There is no such BSP organisation in Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat or Rajasthan or in Tamil Nadu. And hence the hype about the BSP is misplaced.