Labor a Right or a Privilege?
|April 26, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Labor a Right or a Privilege?
In India, a New Rural Poverty Plan
Here are portions of an interesting report from BBC News.
by Jill McGivering
Earlier this year, the Indian government launched a bold, multi-million dollar scheme to tackle rural poverty. It guarantees 100 days work a year for every rural household. It’s manual work at the minimum wage. Critics say corruption and bad governance mean it is unlikely to work. So two months after the launch, I travelled in northern India to see if it is working.
The northern state of Rajasthan is a barren land of dust and desert. But in some of its poorest villages the government’s new rural employment guarantee scheme is bringing new life.
I came across more than 200 people from the small village of Samota, toiling together in the heat, carving out a village pond.
Everyone had a part to play. The women, decked out in brightly coloured saris, were carrying panniers of earth, balanced on their heads as they processed. The men swung their picks to dig into the rock-hard ground.
Each one of them was being paid a daily wage by the government for doing this – just over a dollar a day. It is modest but, for them, well worth the money.
‘Edge of poverty’
When the workers stopped for lunch, one of them, Jagdish, invited me back to his home.
It was simple mud and thatch with earth floors and an open fire for cooking. Not much space for a family of seven.
Jagdish had been working in the nearby city of Ahmedabad before the scheme started. I asked him why he had come back. Behind us his wife tended a smoky fire, boiling tea.
“The wage is better here than in Ahmedabad,” he told me, “and there I had to cook for myself and everything. But here I can work close to the family.” He smiled. “We are all together, with the children too.”
Their positive story would delight Aruna Roy, a leading campaigner for the rights of the poor and a driving force behind the new law.
I met her in Udaipur in Rajasthan where she was chairing a meeting about how to publicise the new scheme.
“India is still largely very badly off,” she said. “We think that, for the first time, a law that is a people’s law has been passed. Because it relates to 60% of India’s population which lives either with the constant fear of unemployment on the edge of poverty or with unemployment as a continuing process.”
But critics say the fundamental approach is wrong, that public labour programmes simply don’t work.
Others support the idea in theory but say widespread corruption means the poor will feel little benefit.
“We just do not have the delivery mechanisms,” Gucharan Das said. “The thing everyone quotes is what Rajiv Gandhi once said: that only 15% reaches the poor.” He shook his head sadly. “But now there are people who doubt whether even 15% reaches the people it is intended to reach.”
Mr Das is not the only person worried about implementation. One of the ironies is that India’s poorest states which need the scheme most are generally its worst governed too.
After talking to Mr Das, I travelled overnight to the heart of Uttar Pradesh, a vast state, India’s most populous and one of its poorest.
Here too the scheme was introduced at the start of February.
Our journey ended with a bumpy drive along a dirt track to a small, remote village called Kewti.
The non-government worker who took us there had called a meeting with the villagers to discuss the new employment law. But we arrived to find the village in uproar.
It seemed that a much-needed new road was being built but the government has appointed a local contractor to the work.
The contractor had brought in labour from the neighbouring state of Bihar. The villagers said if they had known their rights under new law, they would have insisted that they did the work instead.
Village elder Shyam Dher Mishra told me it was desperately needed: “There are so many unemployed people in the village,” he said.
“People are really hungry. So the government should come here, let us do the work and the money could go from the government directly to us.”
In the next village we visited, Gutiah, we found another story. The villagers showed off with pride their newly dug irrigation channel.
They took matters into their own hands, organised themselves into teams to carry out the work on their own and were now lobbying the government to pay them retrospectively.
This way, the say, they cut out the middle-men, the contractors, to try to make sure the payment came directly to the village.
Murli, one of the men who worked on the channel, told me they had decided this was the best approach.
“We heard about this new law but there was no work coming,” he said. “So we thought we’d start ourselves.
“We thought if the canal’s ready, it will bring water and also give us work. We’ve seen many contractors in the past but it’s all corruption. The work never gets done.”
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