(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 06, 2009
THE National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is once again in the news, though for the wrong reasons. The arbitrary announcements of the Rural Development ministry of changes in the guidelines, has turned a requirement into a self-defeating exercise. Former members of the National Advisory Council like Aruna Roy, Jean Dreze and several of their colleagues who have been working in a sustained way on REGA, have strongly opposed many of the proposals made as also the methods adopted by the ministry. Their criticism of the ministry in trying to push through changes without discussion has much validity. For example, we suddenly learn on the birthday observance of the late prime minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi that Lok Sewaks are to be appointed in every village to implement REGA. Has any state government been consulted on this? The Central Advisory Council (CAC) mandated by law is being turned into a completely irrelevant body. The term of its non-official members is for one year. In January 2009, the term of many of its members including Kumar Shiralkar from the All India Agricultural Workers Union, Subhashini Ali from AIDWA and Annie Raja from NFIW was extended. However after the formation of the new government, they along with others have been dropped from the Council without even the courtesy of a letter informing them that new members are being appointed. On the other hand, in May, amendments were made to the rules governing the CAC to include a representative of the PMO. Even five years after its adoption by parliament, the Act is implemented through its guidelines, since no Rules for the Act (except for the clause regarding appointment of CAC), have been framed. The executive has appropriated to itself powers to change the guidelines at will. This is a trend which will impact very negatively on the implementation of this important piece of social legislation. It is therefore necessary to ensure that rules are framed and placed before parliament, that the CAC does include representatives of mass organisations working on REGA and that parliament is taken into confidence on significant changes being proposed.
However the contention of the critics of the new proposals, that there should be no changes in the Act till it is fully and properly implemented is not in tune with the experience of the last four years of the implementation of the Act and is premised on a notion that there are no flaws or gaps in the Act or the guidelines. We cannot agree with this position. Changes are required particularly as far as workers are concerned. For example, reduction of productivity norms, or switch over to time rated from piece rated work; removal of the 100 day work limit particularly urgent in view of the drought ; job cards to individual members instead of family cards and other issues elaborated below. Even the changes notified by the government, though made without discussion should not be rejected outright, but modified to ensure compliance with REGA objectives.
MINIMUM WAGE: NATURE OF WORK, MEASUREMENTS AND PAYMENT
The government has declared that 100 rupees will be the minimum wage under REGA which will be in operation for the next five years. Thus, even while increasing the wage, there is also a declared wage freeze. At a time of escalating prices of essential commodities ranging from 20 to 100 per cent, a wage freeze is unfair since the real wage is actually going down. The government should work out a link with the price index for agricultural workers to enable price rise compensation from time to time. The fact is that in most states, workers doing a full day�s work are still unable to earn a full minimum wage. Although the Act does give a choice between time rated and piece rated wages, every single state, under pressure from the centre, has linked its implementation of the Act to piece rated wages, that is payments are made according to the work done. The impossibly high productivity norms in most states and the methods of measurement of work are fatal flaws that ensure that the average wage earned on most REGA worksites is well below the minimum wage. Under pressure from Left parties, workers movements and with the support of some sensitised officers, the centre did push state governments to undertake time and motion studies to revise productivity norms but because the base was extraordinarily high, in spite of a reduction in the norms, in most states, it remains a punishing schedule of work, well beyond the capacity of malnourished workers. Women who make up a large percentage of the workers in many states are the worst affected by the present regime of piece rated work. REGA must be reformed to ensure that humane work norms are adopted as the national standard included in the rules which can ensure that all workers earn a full minimum wage. The previous minister had also smuggled in a most objectionable amendment to the guidelines to increase the hours of work from eight hours to nine hours a day. This must be withdrawn. More attention must be given to changes in the implementation structure, such as staff requirements to ensure no time lag in work measurement. This leads to grave underestimation of work done which further deprives the workers of wages due to them.
The central government should also permit state governments to shift to a time-rated payment system as mentioned under the Act.
Linked to non-payment of minimum wages, is the problem of weak grievance redressal mechanisms. In this connection the good practices of some states can be included as a national norm through necessary amendments.
EXPAND LIST OF WORKS PERMISSIBLE
important change required is to ensure provision of at least 100 days a
work to a nuclear family. The national average of work days provided is
less than half of the 100 days permitted and some states are lagging
But why is this so? Is it because these governments are callous and not
interested in bringing relief to the poor in their states? Those who
changes believe it is so. Experience shows that the schematic nature of
list of work permissible in the Act is itself the cause for a lower
of workdays. The CPI(M) had argued at the time of the drafting of the
the eight list of works permitted relating in the main to manual labour
earth digging should be made more flexible. At that time those who were
against the Act on grounds that it was a free give away to the poor
proposal to include the concept of inclusion of work related to the
of the quality of life of the rural poor. In the name of producing
assets, the main work permitted is earth digging for water tanks, bunds
This may be beneficial in dry and arid zones like Rajasthan, but is
limiting in areas where there is intense use of land for cultivation
the amount of common land available for such water harvesting projects
limited. After all how many tanks can be built in a village where there
little land to be had? In states where there are monsoons over several
little work can be offered under the present norms. The government has
stubbornly refused to expand the nature of works permissible ignoring
diversities. For example in terraced hilly land, it is very difficult
generate work under the schemes proposed in the present Act. Women in hilly areas like Uttarakhand, spend
hours climbing up dangerous rocky hillsides, collecting fodder and
huge bundles back to their village. Projects under REGA could be worked
pay women wages for this work which is fulfilling a social
There are many closed tea gardens in
works permissible list includes a clause suggested earlier by the
In February 2009, the Kisan Sabha had earlier made the demand for inclusion of small and marginal farmers. Several members of parliament belonging to different political parties have also raised it. The government notification meets this demand. However the notification does require correction and clarifications to prevent it from being misused as a means of providing labour to well off farmers at government expense.
of these corrections/ clarifications required in the guidelines include
definition used to categorise poor and marginal farmers based on that
central debt waiver relief scheme is problematic and cannot be accepted
does not differentiate between irrigated and non-irrigated land. Thus,
adivasi farmers in
From this perspective it only means that the benefits of REGA and thereby state subsidies expand to include other needy sections like small and marginal farmers. There should not be any competition for funds because the law itself is demand driven. Looking at the huge subsidies given to the corporates, calculated by P Sainath to work out to 700 crore rupees a day in the last two years, the extension of a subsidy to small and marginal farmers need not conflict in any way with the core requirements of the Act. Indeed it can be argued that at the present juncture when these sections are among the worst affected by drought, the government must and should extend REGA to help them.
ISSUE OF CONVERGENCE
The other contentious proposal is for convergence with other developmental works. Although it does make sense to dovetail projects for rural development, the main problem arises because of the 100 days work limitation per family under REGA. Thus at present one member of a family may be working on a construction site for a particular department and the other on a REGA worksite. Under convergence their work days would be pooled and they would be unable to get more than 50 days each. Convergence could also lead to loss of wages for workers particularly on construction sites because many workers are getting more than the REGA minimum wage which would lead to reduction. On the other hand some departments have even higher productivity norms and thus lower wages. Convergence should not mean that a regime of lower wages in the name of conformity should be allowed. Convergence thus should be implemented very strictly within REGA norms such as maintaining the present ratio between expenditure on material costs and labour costs, to ensure the exclusion of contractors and machines, the productivity and payment norms, to name a few. Apprehensions that convergence would lead to a dilution of the rights under REGA are real and therefore utmost caution is required when this is implemented. The rules for convergence must be framed taking all this into consideration
But one of the first priorities in convergence is to remove the 100 day limit, to give job cards to individuals not family members and to use convergence to increase the total number of work days available.
The amendment to include a representative of the PMO directly in the CAC is an indication of the centralisation efforts of the government. The declaration of Lok Sevaks is an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the states and presents a fait accompli. States already have their own structures. If there are to be any additions the states must be consulted before, not after such a decision. It has also been declared that the centre will pay for a bhavan in every village to be named the Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan. This is a blatant attempt to politicise the programme in a narrow partisan way and will surely lead to objection from the states.
Changes in REGA are urgently required but to strengthen the Act not to dilute or to divert its main thrust. We want inclusion of small and marginal farmers, we do feel that convergence is rational, but not in the way being proposed. Instead of taking unilateral actions, it would be preferable for the government to place the issues before parliament as also to take into account differing opinions based on direct experiences of the states before pushing through amendments which will do more damage than good.