Quest for equality: A path towards providing right to work

By Hariharan Subramanian*

For Ashish Ranjan Jha of the Jan Jagrit Shakti Sangthan. with operates in few districts of North Bihar, discovering his privileges began from his school days itself. Coming from a politically active family, the discussions in their living room focused on developmental politics and economics. However, he was a regular school-going kid too. While society and his peers around him pushed him towards the path of building a successful career, there was also the nagging in his heart when he came across poverty. He had read different theories regarding economic development but found them taking too long to uplift the weaker sections of society. Hence, he decided to find his way.

He began to look inwards, studying the works of several Indian thinkers and their thoughts on where they saw the country post-independence. He also was driven towards taking some steps to bring about changes within his sphere of influence. That is when he came across the plight of migrant workers in rural workers and decided to improve their quality of life.

The policy ideals and the ground reality:

The MGNREGA act envisioned providing the ‘right to work’ in the rural areas by guaranteeing at least 100 days of work to each rural household where adult volunteers do unskilled labour work. This also could provide a boost to the infrastructure development in those areas. However, the ideals of the policy always have difficulties being seen in the grass root levels. The budget distribution was not done based on the number of workers who were available in each state. Ashish saw this disparity in Bihar, causing the ‘100 day guarantee’ to generally not be feasible. There was also another stakeholder here – the state Government. If the state government does not show the political will to implement a scheme like this, there is always a risk of the policy not being executed well. For instance, Mr. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister in 2005, mentioned that budget was being used by the intermediaries to buy big cars. Moreover, the workers did not have the power to negotiate due to a lack of awareness of their rights. As Ashish put it, he knew that there was a need to do more than give speeches and began aggregating these workers to make their demands as a collective.

The other issue was with budget – Ashish eloquently pointed out that the policy was one of entitlement. If the adult comes forward, they must be provided the guaranteed 100 days of work. But due to budget deficits, this was not feasible. This was mainly because the policymakers had used ballpark estimates to decide the funding for each state with an assumption that this all a given state can deliver. For instance, Bihar, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh budgets are the same while there are more workers in Bihar. If this was a policy focussed on entitlement, the budget allocation does not reflect that. The dearth of budget can lead to another issue – wages below the minimum wage levels of Bihar. Even the Supreme Court has pointed out that this is illegal. This can be traced back to the ideology – MGNREGA was being seen to distribute welfare money to the poor.

The payment method has been changing since the inception of the Act in 2005. At the same time, there were cash dispensation in the beginning and moved to electronic transfer post-2009. While creating accounts (post office, Jan Dhan) was boosted, the dispersal of cash on time has still been a challenge.

MGNREGA and COVID-19:

Ashish points out that while this Act has its shortcomings, it did help workers during the pandemic. The first good part about the Act is that it can target the poorest of the poor based on the nature of work. The second was during the pandemic; the Act saved these people from destitution.

There was an increase in demand due to reverse migration early in the pandemic days. The budget provided to Bihar (of approximately INR 5000 crores) was also allocated aggressively as the governments worked hard to come true to their promises. But as the gaze of the public moved away, the budgets stagnated for the current year.

The way forward

One of the systemic issues with policies of this scale is corruption. While technology has been touted as the way to counter it and improve transparency, there is a need to enforce the law in case of infringement. One thought is that corruption is the oil that moves the bureaucratic gears. The other is that individual workers are not empowered enough to go against the system. Activists like Ashish have taken up the responsibility to empower the workers by organizing them at various levels. Organizing workers can ensure that the intermediaries are kept in check and reduce the level of corruption and delays in the implementation of the scheme.

Ashish’s message to us was significant, too: “students should dispel the thought that schemes like MGNREGA do not work. As I pointed out, these schemes at some levels are helping out the marginal sections of society. However, when you see a problem at any level, it is your duty to point it out and focus on rectifying it. The other is to interact with social activists and contribute your social capital to improve society.”

IIM Ahmedabad | Post Graduate Programme in Management | Batch of 2022

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