Debating India
Home page > Public directory > Opinions, medias & society > Two steps forward for India

Two steps forward for India

Monday 22 August 2005, by SINGH*V.P.

The passage of the Right to Information Act and the introduction of the national Rural Employment Guarantee Bill are welcome steps with far-reaching consequences.

THE UNITED Progressive Alliance Government has taken two major steps in a little over a year of being in office. One is the passage of the Right to Information Act and the other, the introduction of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill. These are most welcome steps with far-reaching consequences. I feel particularly pleased as these were two unfinished tasks of the Government of which I was Prime Minister. The Right to Information Act effectively empowers the people to monitor government spending at all levels. The Employment Guarantee Bill, which is expected to be passed early next week, opens the door of hope for poor people for employment.

Suggestions for changes in the original Bill were made by the Left parties and various people’s organisations such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee. I also appeared before the Parliamentary Standing Committee and gave my suggestions in consonance with them. Many of these suggestions have been incorporated in the Bill that has been introduced in Parliament. These suggestions include extending the coverage of the Act to the whole of rural India within five years; disentangling the scheme from the bureaucratic web tied to the identification of below the poverty line (BPL) beneficiaries and, instead, making it universally applicable to all who want to work; ensuring that the scheme functions as a real guarantee and not a tentative one that can be withdrawn by the Government at will. In addition we had pressed for an effective social audit at the gram panchayat level to be included in the provisions of the Bill.

However, two issues still remain to be addressed. The first, is a provision in the Bill that if the Central Government thinks that there is corruption in the implementation of any "scheme," it can stop funding the scheme. This is highly unjust, because with such a step instead of the corrupt being punished the people, who themselves are the victims of corruption, are being punished.

This affects not only the EGA, but the Right to Information Act 2005 as well. For instance, one of the ways in which people are prevented from monitoring rural works is the threat used very effectively that if they do so their names will not be entered in the muster rolls, their payments and the work itself will be stopped. Even in major cases of misuse, proven by government enquiry, the Government and the district authorities themselves stop issuing sanctions for new works, thereby "punishing" people for exercising their right to protest against mismanagement and fraud. The net result would be that the people would stop complaining for fear of losing employment so necessary for their survival. This clause would embolden the already adept and corrupt mafia, providing them with an additional stick to beat the disempowered with. Instead, the hands of the complainants should be strengthened with prompt action against the guilty. And there should be rigorous punishment for those who resort to corrupt practices that deny the poor their due share. Provisions for social audit can only be made effective if the people are given an incentive to monitor and blow the whistle against malpractices. In any case, to shut down rural works because of corrupt officials is an argument that reveals a bias against the rural poor. If there is corruption in the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), will the Government talk about winding it up? Would that be fair to the investor?

The second issue is regarding minimum wages. The present Bill provides for a uniform minimum wage rate of Rs. 60 a day. In many States, the minimum wage is higher than Rs. 60 a day. This has taken away what is statutorily provided for in such States. What is worse is that this provision explicitly overrides the Minimum Wages Act. This will set a dangerous precedent. For instance many programmes are going to be merged with the EGA and will therefore deny the minimum wage which they have had to pay so far. The private sector contractors and landlords might also use this as an example to argue against the need to be bound by the Minimum Wages Act. It must be remembered that minimum wage has been one of the only protective legislation for the unorganised sector, in urban and rural areas. It has given them the legitimacy to fight for survival, with dignity.

Therefore, from our perspective, the wage paid should be either the minimum floor wage or the State minimum wage, whichever is higher. This is also what had been recommended by the all-party Standing Committee.

Finally, I hope that the Government will heed these suggestions while ensuring that the Employment Guarantee Bill is passed without further delay. The Manmohan Singh Government should be complimented for enacting these historic legislation, and also Sonia Gandhi whose keen interest and efforts facilitated the necessary changes needed to strengthen these legislation.

(The writer is former Primer Minister of India.)

See online : The Hindu

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0