Empowerment to the poor and the voiceless

This is the guiding tenet of “The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” which came into effect as a law in India on August 25, 2005.This law guarantees employment of 100 days to any unemployed adult living in what the State defines as a rural area. People are employed within 15 days of them asking for employment failing which the State is liable to pay them an unemployment allowance which is tentatively one-fourth of the wage. Employment needs to be provided within a radius of 5 kilometres from the place of residence of the unemployed. Still in its nascent phases, this law is being projected as one which is most widespread in reach is most suited to treat India’s problems stemming from massive unemployment.

Payment of wages to workers is undertaken by the rural banking institutions. It is a fairly transparent process wherein the labourers are issued a “job card” by their employers and is used to keep details of the number of days worked, minimum wage eligible, status of workers et al. Details of wages paid each time either directly or by means of a bank transfer is made into the card. This job card holds as the employee’s primary identity certificate.

People are allotted employment in work sites and are engaged in a number of tasks. An interesting feature of this law is that it concentrates on focussing energies towards development works like afforestation and tree plantation, provision of irrigation facilities, desilting of tanks/ponds, flood control and enhancement of rural connectivity. Contrary to what is perceived in the press, the work involved is not of an unproductive nature. These are small, basic projects which go a long way in initiating the process of preservation of the environment and offering basic facilities to the village inhabitants. At the moment the use of machinery in these work sites is banned. This is with the intention of encouraging maximum manual labour in order to employ those many more people.

This law is multi-dimensional in nature and has many unique features which make it the law touted by most economists of the country as the cause of change in many development indicators.

There is one such unique characteristic of the law which forms the essence of its revolutionary nature. Under this law, all documents related to the procedure of seeking employment by the people, basis on which work is allotted, measurements of the work involved in the work sites, record of wages paid and due, the guidelines of the law itself, budget of the resources allocated for this scheme by the Central and State Governments, directives issued by the governing bodies are free to be accessed by any citizen of the country on demand. That is why this law cannot be envisaged without the supporting law of the “Right to Information”. The Right to Information gives the people of India the right to view records, memos, documents, circulars, logbooks, contracts, reports pertaining to the public documented by the governing body. This very law has paved way for a very fruitful activity and that is the commissioning of social audits. This is a procedure wherein individuals carry out the onerous task of collecting information and all appending documents and logbooks on various schemes implemented in the region concerned by the authority in charge. They then compare the “completion” of these schemes on paper to the reality on the ground and bring any irregularities to the notice of necessary authorities. In lieu of being personally part of such an audit I saw for myself the tremendous power such audits can have in correcting any flaws in the system at a micro level and also expose any fraud or corruption with enough documented evidence for support. And this would have not been possible without the right of the individual to information pertaining to such schemes.

Because of this liberty this law has the potential of giving immense empowerment to its people. This automatically implies the highest degree of transparency and accountability from the people involved in this scheme since it is not only their superiors they are accountable to but virtually every member of the country. Apart from the exercise of casting your vote, I believe this is the only other medium which make the citizens of this country a part of the process of participative democracy. The Constitution of the country declares it a citizen’s prerogative to live a life of dignity. The right to employment gives people a way to achieve this right.

Apart from the obvious economic ramifications of this law, there is enough space for improvement of the social sphere of the rural life. By making it mandatory to ensure that 33% of the composition of labour should be women, there has been a modest beginning of a revolution for the improvement of women in rural society by the women themselves

I am not suggesting that the law is perfect the way it is and has no scope of change to enhance its benefits. There have been leakages of funds observed that need to be remedied instantly. Cases of the amount of wages paid not matching the records of wages disbursed are coming to the forefront. Using the Right to Information to verify such cases and collecting enough evidence to demand justice can go a long way in correcting such anomalies. This will also allow social audits to hold a more professional and formal stature. Giving additional powers to the local leadership to ensure stringent norms of accountability can also be practiced. But attention must be paid to avoid delegating too much power leading to its misuse. There is a tendency of the bureaucracy to hold on to power which needs to be focussed on. Transferring of power is not a panacea. Only if the local administration is trained and educated about the laws, its correct usage and weight of accountability, can any additional designated power be put to any effective use. Alternative work opportunities must be planned out for areas where there is no common land available to carry out traditional works. Employment potential of teachers, nurses, cooks in schools can be further developed.

Rakshita Swami

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