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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 47

A Betrayal!

Wednesday 14 November 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay

Persons in political authority tend to think that they have an official prerogative to prevaricate. In an open democracy certain manipulation of truth, like the famous example of a glass half full or half empty, is permitted and tolerated. But any deliberate inexactitude of fact is not acceptable. If any party in power goes on displaying this phenomenon one could be justified in reading some sinister motive in their behavioral pattern. In West Bengal the Chief Minister went on repeating that only one per cent of the land mass of the State was non-agricultural and, therefore, the State had no alternative to acquiring multicrop fertile lands in Singur for the Tata Motors. The fact is that the “area not available for cultivation” is 15.73 lakh hectares constituting 18.1 per cent of the land mass escaped his attention because it was inconvenient. Similarly, he had been repeating, ad nauseam, that 94 to 96 per cent of farmer owners of land in Singur had given up their land willingly. The counter-affidavit filed by the Joint Secretary, Department of Land and Land Reforms of the State Government, in reply to my affidavit to the Hon’ble High Court, clearly stated that owners of only 287 acres out of 997 acres of land acquired agreed to consent the award under Section 11(2) of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. One fails to understand why persons in authority tell lies which are so easily detectable. We have now another piece of the same type of prevarication. The Statesman, Kolkata, September 20, 2007, in its news in brief (p. 4) carried a statement by the Minister of Panchayat and Rural Development, West Bengal, that “compared to other States, works under the scheme (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) had been distributed in the most equitable manner in the State (West Bengal)”. He was wise enough not to quote any figure. Any qualitative assessment without any quantitative back-up is bound to be highly subjective. And he might try to decamp by that route.

Let us now assess the objective situation about the implementation of the scheme in West Bengal. The Central Employment Guarantee Council, which is the highest advisory and supervisory body for the NREGS, met on September 20, 2007, at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. As a member of the Council this author attended the meeting.

The Ministry of Rural Development (Govern-ment of India) produced detailed data sheets regarding the performance of each State and Union Territory. A table has been prepared combining the data provided by the Ministry and the National Sample Survey Organisation’s data on the 61st Round of Household Expenditure, 2004-05.

Table-I
Analysis of the NREGA Implementation Status Report 2006-07
States Average No. of persondays generated per registered Household. Rural Poverty Perceived Food Ratio 2004-2005 in percentage % of total rural households inadequacy Rural house in
Andhra Pradesh: 31.0 11.2 0.6
Bihar 35.0 42.1 2.8
Chattisgarh 56.0 40.8 2.6
Jharkhand 37.0 46.3 0.7
Madhya Pradesh 68.0 36.9 2.0
Orissa 58.0 46.8 6.1
Rajasthan 85.0 18.7 0.0
Uttar Pradesh 32.0 33.4 1.7
West Bengal 14.0 28.6 11.9

The preamble of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005, states, inter alia, that its objective is to enhance the livelihood security of the households in the rural areas by providing at least one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Several issues come out of this preamble.

First, it is an attempt to enhance livelihood security by providing guaranteed employment for at least 100 days in a year.

Second, it is open-ended both with regard to the number of employment seekers and in respect of resource support to implement this programme. In fact, it is a demand driven programme with no cap either on the number of employment and State fund to provide such employment. Thus, there has been a complete departure from the stereotype of other schemes with constraints both with regard to coverage and resources.

Against this background one has to find out reasons for such a poor performance of creation of only 14 persondays of employment per registered household against the aim of 100 persondays in West Bengal in 2006-2007. Rajasthan is the highest performer with the average of 85 persondays followed by Madhya Pradesh with the average of 68 persondays of employment. Incidentally, Rajasthan’s poverty ratio is 10 percentage points less than that of West Bengal. And West Bengal has highest percentage of rural households (11.9 per cent) suffering from various degrees of food inadequacy.

One could, perhaps, assume that agricultural workers in West Bengal would be getting higher wages in their ordinary employment. But the Report of the National Commission for Enterprises in Unorganised Sector, August 2007 (Arjun Sengupta Report) completely demolishes that assumption. Table 2.1 of the Report (p. 124) shows that 95.4 per cent of agricultural workers in West Bengal gets wages much below the National Minimum Wages of Rs 66 per day. Their daily earnings hovered around Rs 45-46 for male and Rs 30-32 for females. Therefore, it was not the attraction of higher weages in market that caused such dismal performance of the NREGS. There must be something else which are not easily visible which might be behind this sad performance.

The Arjun Sengupta Report suggested an explanation. It observed:
The fact that such industrially advanced and urbanised States as Maharashtra, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are in the same league as the predominantly agrarian States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, perhaps, reflects the extreme rural-urban disparities and the consequent weak bargaining power of agricultural workers in these States. Such a grim reality of widespread non-payment of that, in our view, a very modest minimum wage norm is in sharp contrast to the emerging reality of the Indian economy as a rapidly growing one (para
8.6, p. 124)

This is undoubtedly a valid general comments for all the low wage paying States. But there could be other State specific reasons which require to be delved into.

The Planning Commission (of India) conducted a study on the implementation of the NREGA by a well known Delhi based NGO—PRIYA. In its study in the second phase, September 2007, it has come out with some startling figures on the status of the implementation of the NREGS. In West Bengal, as on March 2007, only 40.2 per cent of households registered under this scheme as against 94.9 per cent in Rajasthan, 97.2 per cent in Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh, 85.1 per cent in Jamtara in Jharkhand and 78.7 per cent in Rajnandangaon in Chhatisgarh (Table No. 5, p. 30). How is it that in a politically conscious State of West Bengal the percentage of registration was so low compared to so many “backward” States?

More ominous is the figure regarding payment of minimum wages for those employed in the NREGS. The report states that 75.7 per cent of workers under the NREGS in West Bengal received wages less than the minimum wages. It looked that the same exploitative and extortionate elements which denied minimum wages to 95.4 per cent normal agricultural workers were operating even in the implementation of the NREGA of the Central Government.

The West Bengal Minister talked about per cent equitable manner of implementation of the programme. Perhaps, only he could clarify what he meant. But the Planning Commission study (by PRIYA) gives a different picture. Under the scheme both medical facility and creches have to be provided for. Only 32.7 per cent of the participating households got medical facility and creches were available to only 13.5 per cent of households. If this were the quality the Minister was referring to, one would have to think seriously about the meaning of the term “quality”.

The key to this riddle may be found in another table of the main Report. In Table No. 2 it states that only in West Bengal planning and implementation of the NREGS was being done 100 per cent by the Panchayats. (pp. 12-13) Technically this is the best possible situation. But a look at the class character of the elected members of the Gram Panchayat would indicate a solution to this enigma.

In 1979, after the first general election of panchayats in West Bengal, Dr Satyabrata Sen, the then Advisor to the State Government, conducted a Survey regarding the class character of the elected gram panchayat members. It came out that only seven per cent of the elected GP members were landless agricultural workers and bargadars. The other 93 per cent had landed interests. He repeated this survey after the second panchayat general elections in 1983. Results of the second survey confirmed the findings of the first one. The rural party and the Panchayats had been captured by rural upper and rich peasantry. In thirty years since then they have thoroughly consolidated their social, political and economic domination over the economically weaker sections. They would not allow anything to happen that might remotely hurt their class interests.

Increase in agricultural wages means increase in the incomes of the agricultural workers. But it also increases the cost to the upper and rich peasantry reducing their surplus income. Successful implementation of the NREGS with 100 days employment and with the full payment of minimum wages would push up the general level of wages in the agrarian sector. That would go against the class interests of the upper and rich peasantry. Marx believed that no one would act against one’s class interest. Perhaps as true believers of Marx’s ideology they would not allow anything to happen that went against their class interests.

Thus in West Bengal only 40.2 per cent of the rural households would be registered, only 14 persondays of employment would be generated, 75.7 per cent of workers of the NREGS would get wages less than the minimum wages and only 13.5 per cent of the households would get creche facilities so that women workers were free for private employment for seedling raising, seedling transplantation and weeding (which were basically feminised tasks in West Bengal). The powers that be made sure that 95.4 per cent of general agricultural workers would get less than minimum wages. Thus, in this “Marxist” ruled State the upper and rich peasantry were consciously subverting the NREGS on the basis of the Marxian dictum that “thou shalt not hurt thy own class interests”. This is a betrayal of the workers’ cause.

The author was the Secretary to the Government of India, Ministries of Finance (Revenue) and Rural Development, and the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

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