Ground zero realities

A must-read compilation of landmark essays and surveys in the debate on right to work


Pradeep Baisakh | July 20, 2012

Book details
The Battle for Employment Guarantee
Edited by Reetika Khera
Oxford University Press,
264 pages, Rs 695

MNREGS has been a topic of hot debate, even before the law was enacted. Critics see it as wastage of huge public money in ‘mud work’, whereas supporters think it answers the need to save the poor from starvation and malnutrition in the neoliberal era. Amid this debate, the book under review comes as a comprehensive document, compiling some previously published major articles, surveys and essays, to argue in favour of the law.

The book is divided into four parts with 19 chapters. Part I provides an account of the early days of the civil society struggle for employment guarantee. Parts II and III discuss ground realities and case studies from surveys conducted in various states. Part IV points out the ‘trouble spots’ in implementations and suggests remedies.

As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen writes in a blurb, “This is a remarkably enlightening study of a novel strategy of public intervention in alleviating chronic poverty in India. The National Rural Employment Guarantee has been a highly popular scheme which has yielded many rewards, but which still suffers from a number of serious challenges related to implementation, cost-effectiveness, and ultimately justice…”.

Jean Dreze in his article ‘Employment Guarantee and Right to Work’ reminisces the early days of the struggle for employment guarantee with the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra undertaken by activists through some of the poorest districts like Badwani, Palamu, Gaya and Purulia. He presents a picture of the rural economy “…that looked like a graveyard and unemployment was people’s main concern”.

An exhaustive study was conducted by researchers and activists in mid-2008 in six states – Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – to ascertain the impact of MNREGS. The survey found that the scheme indeed reached the neediest people: 73% of the beneficiaries interviewed belonged to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, 61% of the workers were illiterate, 69% people said it helped them to stave off hunger and 47% spent MNREGS wages to meet their health needs.

The workers got 31 days of work on an average in 2007-08. Though barely 13% of workers got the full quota of 100 days, the survey busted the mis-information by some economists that people do not need NREGA.

The survey busted many arguments from a section of economists. For example, one expert held that there was only 1% unemployment among poor agricultural workers. But the survey showed 98% of them wished to get 100 days of work in a year under this scheme. The article by Dreze and Khera, ‘Battle for Employment Guarantee’, provides more details.

Khera and Nandini Nayak narrate field experiences with regard to benefits the law has brought to women who form majority of the beneficiaries. In 2007-08, their share among the total workers was 82% in Tamil Nadu, 71% in Kerala and 69% in Rajasthan. When women face limited and adverse condition of work in private labour market, MNREGS opens up new opportunities for them, asserts the article.

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) expose the dwindling commitment of the central government that undermined the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 by putting an upper limit cap on the wages under MNREGS. Now the wages have been linked with inflation.
A considerable number of essays extensively discuss several measures to check corruption under this scheme and reduce delay in payment of wages to the poor labourers.

The book is dedicated to two martyrs, “Piku who was killed by the CRPF in a fake encounter in Orissa and Niyamat Ansari, killed by Maoists in Jharkhand”.

The book provides a thorough guide for the policymakers in enhancing the delivery of MNREGS. It is quite useful for researchers studying labour market, unorganised sector and welfare economics. This book is a must read for everyone interested in poverty alleviation and socio-economic development of rural India.



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