With the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in the recently concluded Monsoon session of the parliament India has moved a step closer to its enshrined ideals.
72% of India's population lives in its villages. Upwards of 65% of the population lives off the land. Land ceiling laws have been poorly implemented thus most of the rural poor either have small landholdings enough only for subsistence or have none at all. To compound the problems with this reality agricultural employment is not all year round. Such conditions create almost starvation circumstances for the landless. This is the backdrop from which this Bill emerged.
Following are some of the highlights of the Bill -
* The Bill guarantees 100 days of employment to one person per household at Rs.60/day ($1.40/day).
* The scheme will be implemented in 200 of the poorest districts (out of 600 total)
* The whole country will be covered in 5 years.
* The Panchayats (village self-governments) will come up with the openings based on the general areas as specified in the Bill. These areas are predominantly infrastructure oriented.
* Those who cannot be absorbed in the workforce will be eligible for unemployment benefits.
This is a remarkable development. Finally there is a social safety net for the most vulnerable in India. The Government of India along with many non-profit organizations who tirelessly campaigned for this Bill must be congratulated.
The Bill places serious responsibilities on the Panchayats. Their role will be key in the success of this Bill. This is a true test for decentralized democracy. It must, however, be said that the Panchayats will need a lot of help to carry out the schemes sanctioned under the Bill. There is a dire need for training the Panchayat members in basic governing skills. The Panchayati Raj ministry must work with the Rural Development Ministry (the sponsor of the Employment Guarantee Act)to ensure that this training is provided.
Some social concerns persist. The suggestion that a man AND a woman each should be guaranteed employment per household given the problem of alcoholism among men was shot down. Also, the minimum wage of Rs.60/day is rather arbitrary. States have their own minimum wage laws that might conflict with the prescribed wage.
All things considered the passage of this Act signals that Indian politics is now looking inwards in a constructive way. Gone are days when heated communal rhetoric, caste sloganeering and obsessive hatred of Pakistan dominated the political discourse. Even if ever so slightly people's issues have made it to the surface this emergence of the people's agenda must be hailed as a welcome step.