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How Can Rural Labour Survive?

There is no right to work in India. The ruling governments have been least bothered about full employment policies and practices in independent India. The Indian Constitution does not explicitly recognise right to work as a fundamental right. It is cleverly placed in the Directive Principles of State Policy, so that it becomes unenforceable in the court of law. The Supreme Court of India, through a judicial interpretation, has nevertheless recognized it as a fundamental right inherent in the “Right to Life” under Article 21 of the Constitution. However, this does not really enable a person to sue the State for not providing him with a job, even if he can challenge, in principle, the deprivation as offending the Right to Life.

The Supreme Court’s subtle intellectual legalism is of no practical relevance to the disadvantaged and socially discriminated majority, forced to die without work and living wages in the country. Almost two-thirds of the Indian population of 1.2 billion inhabitants earn their living through agriculture. The agricultural workers often earn less than two dollars per day (World Bank poverty line) and work in difficult conditions without any form of social protection or representation. These marginalised people’s concerns are lack of work, low income, wage inequality between men and women, the use of pesticides without protection, mechanisation, seasonal migration, bullying, violence against adivasis (tribals), and forced labour.

As their work is informal and unregistered, they are ‘invisible’ and not supported by the Indian trade union centres. Apart from pure agricultural workers, there is a large section of small Indian farmers or poor peasants, many of whom commit suicide in isolation, in debt. The agrarian economy of India has been stricken with secular sluggishness marred by malnourished children and anaemic women, alongside increasing incidence of suicide by farmers in distress. Rural crisis, by way of unemployment and poverty, has emerged alongside the development of capitalist agriculture. Agricultural operations have become increasingly mechanised and managed in such a way that routine wage work in agriculture has almost disappeared and availability of wage work has become largely seasonal. By the 1990s, the wage work in agriculture was available for not more than 100 days in a year and has further significantly decreased.

This crisis has manifested in the following ways: (a) agricultural labour became rural labour doing various kinds of wage work in rural areas (including the dwindling agricultural work); (b) migration of agricultural workers, both on day to day basis to nearby urban places and on seasonal basis to distant places started taking place; (c) a reserve army of agricultural labour emerged by way of feminization (as women stayed at home while men migrated) and in the form of small farmers or poor peasants ready to do wage work wherever available; (d) the village-based agricultural labour markets and collective bargaining gave way to dispersed rural labour working in various kinds of wage work wherever they were available in surrounding villages or urban centres—near and far away; (e) a large number of poor peasants and wage workers have emerged in almost all caste categories. Among the high caste Hindus too, many of them now fall under the category of poor peasants. But due to caste pride, they do not prefer to do wage work in rural areas.

Instead, they migrate to nearby urban centres or the cities. Among the backward castes, many of them do wage work along with small-farm cultivation. In this milieu, the 2005 Indian law entitled the “National Rural Employment Guarantee Act” (NREGA) marked an important turning point in the Indian socio-economic history. The law guaranteed a minimum of 100 days’ work per household at minimum wage on public building sites. Under this law, workers who do not receive work 15 days from the date they made the demand can apply for unemployment benefits. Women are encouraged to work as a third of jobs are reserved for them. The scourge of corruption is to be combated with the introduction of strict transparency standards.

The NREGA appeared at the outset to be undoubtedly a pro-people policy, although it did not guarantee full employment to every individual. It came into existence not as a manna from heaven nor as a benevolent attitude of the governments, but as a consequence of a long-drawn struggle of rural labour organisations supported by the left forces who supported the Congress government at that time. It had the potential to dynamise rural India and consequently India as a whole, with Keynesian/Kaleckian macroeconomics. A large-scale public works programme like NREGA can create purchasing power among workers. When the workers spend this additional money, they create demand for commodities. The production of these commodities, in turn, creates demand for capital, raw materials and workers. The extra incomes so generated cause further demand, which again provides a stimulus to production, employment and demand and so on and so forth in a spiral.

This demand stimulating process is called the multiplier, and its value will be high as money is put into the hands of those whose marginal propensity to consume is the highest. Given that a very high proportion of agricultural labour households in India actually own land, and millions of small and marginal farmers are forced to work under NREGA since the productivity of their own farms is no longer enough to make ends meet, growing incomes can have a positive impact on private fixed investment. Rising incomes can also improve capacity utilisation, and happier expectations act as incentives for more investment. Farmers can come to their land on a fulltime basis as increased output, in an atmosphere of renewed hope, spurs further investment. This is the accelerator principle at work. If NREGA can converge with other programmes for rural livelihoods, then the momentum can move forward in a positive upward spiral, which will broad base the growth process via downstream multiplier-accelerator effects.

We can see NREGA as initially the wage employment programme transforming into a source of sustainable livelihoods generating self-employment. But, alas, it is now crystal clear that in practice, the NREGA has been systematically crippled with budgetary cuts on the part of the central government along with long wage-payment delays and non-payments. On top of this, a centralized technology-linked implementation mechanism has wrecked the local accountabilities and participation of the representatives of the elected Gram Panchayats in the scheme. It may be noted that the scheme was originally expected to be implemented as per the recommendations of the Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha, and the Ward Sabha.

But the NREGA works have instead been executed according to the priorities of the central government. The workers have been deployed to work under schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swachh Bharat Mission and construction of Anganwadi Centres, whereby the government has been getting assets like houses and toilets without paying minimum wages to the workers. There has been no radical governance reform bringing real democracy to India’s grassroots. The Contractor Raj which has dominated rural development in India since long has not been replaced with Panchayat Raj. There is no planning, implementation and social audit of public works by gram panchayats under the oversight of the Gram Sabha. There is no creation of a new cadre of dedicated executive agencies serving panchayats, with a team of barefoot engineers and social mobilisers supporting them.

Which means that there has been no state support to dismantle the fossilized yet exploitative system of rural social relations militating against equitable rural expansion. The NREGA is now literally in its death throes. The major reason has been the budgetary cuts on the part of the central government, possibly due to the opposition of the World Bank to NREGA along with other such pro-people programmes like the watershed programmes and schemes for development of small and medium towns on the grounds that they are policy barriers hurting economic development and poverty alleviation! In the novel corona pandemic context, the NREGA workers have become much more workless. Their starvation problem has become all the more horrible with the influx of millions of migrant labourers returning from urban lockdown areas to their village homes.

On June 29, 2020, the rural workers and poor peasants from across the country, from 108 districts across 12 States, staged a peaceful demonstration and observed the day as “NREGA Adhikar Diwas” under the banner of the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA Sangharsh Morcha. They demanded 200 days of employment per person and daily wages rates to be increased to Rs. 600 per day commensurate with the Seventh Pay Commission.

. The rural workers (including the poor high caste Hindu peasants) have thus become beggars of employment guarantee for each adult at increased wages a day even as the average days of employment provided per household under NREGA has declined to 38.06 days in the year 2020-21 against a guarantee of 100 days per year! The Father of (our) Nation and the former President of India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam would surely turn in their graves if they knew all these death-blazing realities of a nation of rural workers and peasants becoming a nation of mendicants and destitutes. Did Mahatma Gandhi not say that “The soul of India lives in its villages”? Did Abdul Kalam not visualise a new India providing four elements of connectivity—physical connectivity, electronic connectivity, knowledge connectivity leading to economic connectivity of rural areas—leading, in turn, to a lesser urban-rural divide? Cry, my beloved country!

Annavajhula J.C. Bose,
PhD Department of Economics, SRCC


Annavajhula J.C. Bose and Surendra Pratap. 2020. Protest Politics of Rural Crisis. Journal of Indian Research. Vol.8. No. 2, April-June. Mihir Shah. 2009. Multiplier Accelerator Synergy in NREGA. The Hindu. April 30.

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