People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 15

April  10, 2011

Social Security in West Bengal


Subhanil Chowdhury


THE Left Front government of West Bengal has been following an alternative path of development since its very inception. This alternative path of economic development is most exemplified in the policies of land reforms and agriculture in the state. However, what is often not recognised is the fact that West Bengal has one of the most developed social security nets in the country, particularly for the workers in the unorganised sector. This article attempts to enumerate the achievements of the Left Front government with regard to providing social security to the workers, which is in sharp contrast to the neo-liberal policies pursued by the government of India.




The neo-liberal economists and the mainstream media have been celebrating the high growth rates achieved in India. What is, however, left unsaid by these commentators is the fact that this high growth in India has not been able to generate adequate employment opportunities for the people. This is evident from the fact that the unemployment rate (Current Daily Status) has reached a historic high of 8.2 per cent in rural areas and 8.3 per cent in urban areas (see NSS Report on Employment and Unemployment Situation in India, 2004-05, Part 1). This is a remarkably high unemployment rate, unprecedented since the NSS started collecting data.


The problem of employment in India does not end there. What has essentially happened is that there has been an increase of informal employment in the economy. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), in its Report on Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector (2007), has estimated that 92.3 per cent of the total workers in India were unorganised or informal workers in 2004-05, which was 91.5 per cent in 1999-2000. Clearly, then, there has been an increase in the informalisation of employment in India between 1999-2000 and 2004-05.


In the face of growing evidence that the unorganised sector workers are among the poorest sections of the population, and under pressure from the Left, the UPA-1 government had brought the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Bill. The NCEUS had, in consultation with the trade unions, made very important recommendations for guaranteed wages, work conditions and social security schemes for these sections to be backed by central allocation of funds for this legislation. The UPA government rejected these recommendations and produced a diluted version of the bill. Subsequently, the standing committee of parliament suggested several changes in the bill. But the UPA government pushed through a truncated legislation, which is high on rhetoric and near zero in substance --- the social security schemes are limited only to the below-poverty-line (BPL) workers. The act does not provide any dedicated fund from which these schemes will be financed. Nor does it provide for any time frame within which all the workers will be included in the schemes.




In sharp contrast to this half-hearted effort on the part of the UPA government, the Left Front government of West Bengal has been consistently pursuing social security schemes aimed at uplifting the conditions of the workers in the unorganised sector.


According to the NSSO 61st round data (2004-05), 91.2 per cent of the workers in West Bengal are unorganised, including the unorganised agricultural workers. This ratio is slightly better than the corresponding all-India figure, which is 92.4 per cent. (See the NCEUS Report on Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector.) It is this section of the workers who remain out of any social security benefit and towards whom the social security policies of the Left Front government are directed. In order to provide benefits to this section of the workers, the West Bengal government has announced and implemented a large number of projects which are enumerated below. (The following discussion is based on the booklet, Social Security for the Working Class and Left Front Government (Shromik-Shreni’r Sahamajik Surakhsha O Bamfront Sorkar), published by Department of Labour, Government of West Bengal.)


1) Provident Fund Scheme for Unorganised Workers: In West Bengal, at the initiative of the Left Front government --- for the first time in the country --- a provident fund scheme for workers in the unorganised sector was introduced in the year 2000-01. Implemented on the basis of contributions from workers at the rate of Rs 20 per month and an equal contribution from the state government, the number of workers enrolled under this scheme has increased from 10.09 lakh in the 2007-08 to 13.16 lakh in the 2008-09. Till September 2010, 19,69,616 workers had registered themselves for the scheme. The total collection from the workers is Rs 1,103,912,820. Till September 2010, Rs 6,16,91,071 have been distributed between 31,299 workers.


2) Health Scheme for Unorganised Workers: In addition to the above mentioned scheme, the Left Front government has also constituted a health insurance scheme for these workers. Under this scheme workers of 44 industries have been covered and 12 categories of self-employed workers have also been covered. Under this scheme, the government will provide money to the families of the workers who are bed-ridden in hospital for more than 5 days. In a year Rs 5,000 will be provided to the workers under this scheme for medical reasons.


3) Beedi Workers Welfare Scheme: This scheme was started from August 23, 2007 for the upliftment of the workers in the beedi industry. This scheme has two basic aims. Firstly, the scheme wants to bring the houses of the workers under electrification. Secondly, the scheme provides financial assistance to the workers for building up their homes. The number of workers benefited from these schemes and the money spent is given in the following table.


No. of Workers Benefited (House Building)

Total Money Spent


Rs1621.45 lakhs

No. of Workers Benefited (Electrification)

Total Money Spent


Rs. 1,04,786,316


4) Scheme for Unorganised Construction Workers: The Left Front government has started a scheme for the workers in the construction sector, whereby the workers have to pay Rs 20 per month and avail of the various facilities under this scheme. Under this scheme, medical allowances are provided to the workers, in addition to the provision of pensions for these workers. If a person is disabled due to an accident, Rs 25,000 is provided as assistance to the family; in case of death the assistance is Rs 1,00,000 This scheme also provides allowances up to Rs 10,000 for treating serious illnesses like cancer, cardiac problems, kidney problems, AIDS etc. Allowances are also provided to the workers for sending their wards to schools and colleges. Till September 30, 2010, 1,46,379 workers had registered for this scheme, Rs 1,89,67,680 had been collected from them and Rs 62,93,641 had been disbursed under various heads to 2260 workers.


5) Social Security Scheme for Transport Workers: The Left Front government announced in 2010 a social security scheme for workers in the transport sector. Workers have to register under this scheme after paying an annual fee of Rs 30. The members under this scheme will get pension benefits. In case of untimely death of workers, financial assistance of Rs 1,00,000 will be provided to the family. In case a worker becomes disabled due to an accident, a payment of Rs 25,000 to the family will be made. In addition to this, a worker will get medical benefits of Rs 30,000 for operation and Rs 10,000 for treatment of a serious illness. This scheme will go a long way in protecting the transport sector workers who are one of the most vulnerable sections of the working class.


6) Financial Assistance to Workers of Closed Factories: Since 1998, the government of West Bengal has been providing financial assistance to the workers of the closed factories. In 1998, the allowance was Rs 500 per month, which increased to Rs 750 per month in 2007 and was subsequently increased to Rs 1500 in 2010. In addition to this, Rs 1000 are being provided to each worker during puja and Id. In this financial year alone, till October 2010, 33,571 workers had been provided financial assistance under this scheme. The total amount of money spent in the current fiscal year (till October 2010) was Rs 26.26 crore. Since the initiation of this project, the government has spent a total of Rs 325 crore, covering workers in 361 factories.




The important point to note is this. With the advent of neo-liberal policies in India, the workers have been left at the mercy of the so-called market forces, with the central government providing little or no assistance for the upliftment of the workers, particularly those belonging to the unorganised sector.


The Left Front government has a contrasting record in this regard. This government has to function within the overall policy framework set by the central government and, as such, its power is very limited compared to the central government. However, even with this limited power, the Left Front government has tried to pursue an alternative development trajectory where workers are not sacrificed at the altar of high GDP growth rates. Rather, the state has intervened actively in improving the condition of the workers belonging to the unorganised sector.


There is no doubt that all the problems facing the unorganised workers cannot be solved by the Left Front government in West Bengal. But it is also definitely the case that the Left Front government, even with its limited powers, has put forward policies that are rushing relief to the poor and the unorganised, aimed at uplifting their living conditions. This is an alternative path of development that has to be popularised all over India.