Economic and Political Weekly February 12, 2005
Thus, if there are three BPL cardholdersliving under one roof, sharing meals in onefamily, the total days of employment theywill together be entitled to in a year willbe 100 and not 300 days. In any case, BPLsurveys in India lack all credibility. Manyreally deserving families get left out sim-ply because they are migrant or homeless.This point needs to be particularly stressedbecause official estimates of poverty haverecently been questioned from many otherpoints of view as well [Sen and Himanshu2004; Ray and Lancaster 2005 andSubramanian 2005]. Although making verydifferent critiques of the official povertyestimates, each of these writers bring outthe severe underestimation of poverty bythe government. Thus, it is clear that tar-geting the employment guarantee to the‘official’ poor will leave out millions of really poor people in rural India.On the other hand, it is also very well– known that there is widespread corrup-tion in the way households get includedin the BPL list. Local vested interests areable to muscle their own people into thelist quite irrespective of whether they arereally poor or not. Such people are highlyunlikely to offer themselves to do thearduous manual labour involved in theprogramme. We may then be left with asituation in many panchayats where be-cause of the restriction of the entitlementto those on the official BPL list, we maynot be able to find the minimum numberof people required to complete a work atany given time. We must remember thatunlike many other BPL-based schemes,this is not an individual beneficiary centredprogramme. We are speaking here about‘public works’ to be carried out by hun-dreds of labourers together in each grampanchayat at one time. Problems would befurther compounded especially if alloca-tions to panchayats for the employmentprogramme are made on the basis of numberof BPL cardholders (as in the public dis-tribution system).Let us visualise a typical scenario thatis likely to emerge. Officially, the averagenumber of poor households in a grampanchayat in India is around 150.
Thenumber of those entitled to 100 days’ work would get reduced further depending onhow many of the poor share one roof.Suppose on an average 1.5 BPL cardholderslive together. This would mean only 100people in a gram panchayat would eachbe entitled to 100 days work in a year.
And not all of these people would like tolabour, given that many of them are notreally poor or unemployed. The kind of works to be taken up under the programmewould typically require at least 100-200people working together at one go. So noreally productive work may get done at allin many panchayats. Only in panchayatswith large populations or high numbers of ‘official’ poor would any work take place.
Particularly difficult situations are likelyto emerge in the sparsely populated adivasiareas. As has been well-established [Shahet al 1998, Ch 5], adivasi poverty in Indiais characterised by high land-man ratios,relatively low landlessness but very poorland productivity, forcing marginal andeven small farmers to depend on agricul-tural labour for their livelihood. Most of the ‘landed’ agricultural labourers widelyreported in NSS surveys are adivasis. Inmany of these adivasi dominated grampanchayats there may be problems in find-ing enough ‘officially entitled’ people tobegin public works.Meanwhile, several really poor peoplewho could not make it to the official BPLlist would be deprived of the employmentthey need and deserve. Apart from thosewho should have been on the BPL list inthe first place, there are millions of fami-lies in India whose existence hangs pre-cariously in balance around the officialpoverty line. In years of distress these house-holds regularly slip below subsistencelevels. Restricting the entitlement to BPLfamilies would deprive these deservinghouseholds when they most need statesupport. In any case, it is difficult to visualisein practical terms how authorities wouldturn away non-BPL people in search of work. People who may be even migratingout of the area for employment as thou-sands do every year from villages in Orissa,Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Not allof those who migrate belong to the BPLlist especially not in years of drought. Theincredible thing is that under the currentemployment programmes all these peopleare eligible for work. We have an extra-ordinary situation that the present employ-ment guarantee bill could actually
employment opportunities for such people.
It is not that the government has noexperience of the problems the BPL listthrows up. Reliance on this list was a criticalreason for the disastrous performance of one of the biggest anti-poverty program-mes in India, the Integrated Rural Deve-lopment Programme (IRDP). Thousandsof crores went down the drain forcing thegovernment to finally abandon theprogramme. It is not clear why we wanta repeat of the IRDP. It is better not to havean EGA than to base it on the BPL list.
Another issue that worries the scepticsneeds to be addressed. This is the concernthat paying minimum wages will drawlabour away from agriculture and/or makeit unviable, since market wages are gen-erally much lower than the statutory mini-mum. My own response would be to ask:do we want, therefore, to condemn thepoorest in India to eternal poverty? Andwhy do we use different standards forurban and rural, organised and unorganisedworkers? There can be no compromisewith the payment of statutory minimumwages as per the Minimum Wages Act,1948. This would, in any case, be contraryto rulings of the Supreme Court as in the1982 Asiad case. But in a spirit of con-ciliation and making the EGA work, couldwe consider the suggestion that the em-ployment guarantee be switched off dur-ing the peak agriculture season in eacharea, when demand for labour in agri-culture (and potential conflict with thepeasantry) is at its highest?
Finally to the issue of fiscal burden.Again, my own view is that national pri-orities must be biased in favour of endingthe suffering of the poor during droughtsand floods. Spending around 1 per cent of GDP for drought- and flood-proofingIndian agriculture must be regarded as areasonable investment especially when inrecent years we have had millions of tonnesof foodgrain rotting in the godowns of theFood Corporation of India 25-36 per centof which has found its way into the openmarket or exported out of the country inthe last three years (see the table).Why can’t we use this grain instead tosupport the EGA? Investments under theEGA will also help continuously replenish
Table: Exports and Open Market Sales as Percentageof Rice and Wheat Offtake, 1996-2004
1996-98 1998-99 1999-00 2000-01 2001-02 2002-03 2003-040 3 20 16 33 36 25
Bulletin of Food Statistics
, Ministry of Food, Government of India, various issues.