Democracy and the Right to Work

India's Employment Guarantee Act

By Jean Drze

In August 2005, the Indian Parliament unanimously enacted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (NREGA). Under this Act, any adult willing to do "unskilled manual work" at the minimum wage is entitled to being employed on local public works within 15 days. If employment is not provided, he or she is entitled to an unemployment allowance.

The employment guarantee is subject to an initial limit of "100 days per household per year." The Act also has other shortcomings, and is weaker than the initial draft prepared by human rights activists. But even with these limitations, the Act is a radical departure from the elitist policies of successive Indian governments. It is, in fact, a major achievement for the labor movement.

The significance of this Act can be viewed from different perspectives. First, it could go a long way towards protecting the rural population from poverty and hunger. Indeed, the Act can be seen as the potential foundation of a permanent "social security system" in rural India.

Second, the Act is an important step towards legal enforcement of the right to work, which is mentioned in the Constitution of India as one of the "Directive Principles of State Policy." These principles are supposed to be "fundamental in the governance of the country," and it is the duty of the government to "apply these principles in making laws" (Constitution of India, Article 37). However, little has been done in this regard. The NREGA illustrates the possibility of putting in place legal safeguards for many of the economic and social rights listed in the Directive Principles: not just the right to work but also the right to food, education, health, social security, and so on.

Victory for Democracy

Third, the Act is a spanner in the wheel of the neo-liberal agenda. In India as in many other countries, this agenda takes the form of putting state power at the service of the corporate sector, under the cover of "minimalist government." The Act, for its part, requires a major expansion of the social role of the state. It is no wonder that NREGA has been staunchly opposed by the business media, the Finance Ministry, and substantial sections of the corporate sector.

Last but not least, the enactment of NREGA is a victory for democracy. It shows that, with adequate political organization, the demands of the underprivileged majority can prevail over privileged interests. There is much scope for better utilization of this democratic space in various contexts.

Having said this, the real challenge is not the enactment of NREGA (significant as it may be) but its implementation on the ground. In India as elsewhere, the history of social legislation shows that it often takes a long time for people to be able to claim their rights, even after laws have been passed. Some laws, such as the Minimum Wages Act, have remained on paper for decades without making much impact, except in states like Kerala where laborers are vocal and organized. Similarly, the effective implementation of NREGA is likely to require sustained public pressure.

The silver lining is that NREGA itself facilitates this process. Indeed, aside from its other roles, the Act can be seen as a tool of empowerment. As Anuradha Joshi puts it in a recent study of Maharashtra's "employment guarantee scheme" (a precursor of NREGA), the Act is likely to lead to "a flourishing of activist organizations that would help mobilize the poor in their interests." It is chiefly through this empowerment process that the Act may lead to far-reaching economic, social and political change in rural India.

For the full text of the Act, see www.righttofoodindia.org.

Jean Drèze is Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics and an active member of social movements, including India's "right to food campaign" and the world-wide peace movement.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2006, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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