April 5, 2012

It's not just a job, it's the right to work

Reading Shibu Joseph’s article, ‘Why I am quitting my job’ was such a bizarre experience, that I had to resort to some Wikipedia text book theory to make some sense of it. One possible explanation for his piece could be “Simulated Reality”, where reality could be simulated, to a degree indistinguishable from true reality, and conscious minds may or may not be fully aware that they are inside a simulation. Trapped by city traffic, Times Now television, dire newspaper reports, and a multitude of arbitrary financial figures thrown at us, our sense of reality could possibly be simulated, be created and crafted to lead up to one having the kind of cultural view that he exhibits in his writing.

It’s meant to be a tongue-in-cheek piece of how instead of putting up with “drudgery of corporate life with its unrealistic demands of deadlines, meaningless bullet-point presentation etc”, he should become a worker in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) program. I suppose the juxtaposition is mean to be hilarious, so let’s go with it. I am not going to write on the benefits of such a program and neither am I going to write on behalf of the lakhs of people who work within this employment guarantee program, because I am not like them (doing hard physical labour) but I am like him, Mr. Joseph (yet another person writing on the internet). To borrow from the 24 x 7 news channel format, where employment guarantee and right to food bills get debated without a single potential beneficiary of these programs ever conceivably being invited to assert their views in Delhi studios, lets make this entirely theoretical. Ofcourse television has never claimed to be democratic, but some places on the internet still are, so let’s fight this out on our turf, with reference to his article.

Let’s quickly get some incorrect facts out of the way; he says that “With MGNREGA...providing me enough hard cash for my daily needs (whether I work or shirk), only an insane person will stick with the drudgery of corporate life...”. The NREGA guarantees a hundred days of work, at a wage rate notified by the Centre or the State. Once an NREGA worker has applied to the State to open up public works, and none are opened within 15 days of the application being made, the applicant is entitled to an unemployment allowance. In this structure, I can’t see where a worker gets paid to “shirk work.” On the contrary, workers are almost never paid their full wage rate. Every work opened and wage received on time, is a small battle won. Secondly, he calculates “if you are wondering what to do with those unused NREGA money, just do the maths: Rs 155 for six days a week for 52 weeks will fetch you Rs 48,360 a year.” Again, the NREGA guarantees only a hundred days of work. Further the Centre has notified the wage rate under NREGA, since 2009 to be Rs. 100, so the maths is 100 x 100 which is Rs. 10,000 for a year, if you manage to get the guaranteed hundred days of work.

He goes on to scathingly say “..a NREGA beneficiary has greatness (read wage hike) thrust on him...For the uninitiated, the govt just raised the minimum wage under NREGA to Rs 155 although no one demanded it.” I don’t know if Mr. Joesph is aware but the government is locked in a supreme court case regarding the non payment of minimum wages on NREGA works. The Government of India has not "just raised the wage rate to Rs. 155", but has issued a notification on 1st January 2009, freezing the NREGA minimum wage rate at Rs. 100 a day. This wage rate set by the Centre was Rs. 60 in the Act (in 2005) and revised to Rs. 80 and then Rs. 100. It is extremely unfortunate that the monetary aspects of this law (and significant others on mining royalties, pensions etc.) are not indexed. In the seven years since the enactment of the law, the inflation rate has been between 7 and 12% per year, and there is still no method or process of indexation to revise this minimum. Lest he think no one was demanding this, the Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Sangathan, is just one of the many farmers and labourer collectives who have been fighting tirelessly, for full minimum wages to be paid on government works. Variations in State wage rates (like Karnataka and Rajasthan which have a higher wage rate of Rs. 155) have been extracted after enormous pressure and struggle by peoples collectives.

“And if you thought the NREGA beneficiary moves mountains in villages to earn his keep, I would invite you to travel with me to a village, any village. The government is transforming the once industrious folks who had happily worked real hard to eke out a living into lazy squatters around some village well.”
Mr. Joesph - I accept your offer of invitation, please do take me to “a village, any village” since you are assuming that the 638,365 villages (as per census 2001) in this country are all the same, and that they all once had industrious folks, who have all become lazy now. That this statement is a grossly incorrect generalisation is an understatement. After touring this “village, any village” that you will take me to, I would like to extend a counter invitation to you. I will not take you to “a village, any village” and show you that the NREGA is working perfectly and every job card holder is employed for a hundred days as guaranteed and getting paid their full wage as per the law. I will show you corruption, forged muster rolls, low wages paid and work sites appropriated by higher castes, but I will also introduce you to people, who inspite of all this, still demand to work in grueling conditions, barely managing to keep poverty at bay; because that is the value of the right to work with dignity. I will take you to Barkheda Gram Panchayat, in Bharatpur District of Rajasthan, where hundreds of villagers are demanding work under the NREGA. In a Jan Sunwai (Public Hearing) held there on 28th January of this year, people came with blank Job Cards (indicating no work opened up under the MNREGA). Over two days, 398 No. 6 (demand application) MNREGA forms were issued for just one Gram Panchayat. While this public hearing can be seen as bringing to light the serious inadequacies in implementation, and lack of awareness that this is a demand driven program, the fact that there is demand, and such overwhelming demand at that, indicates that there is a desperate need to make a program like this work. I will also take you to Pati Block in Madwani district of Madhya Pradesh, where people don't sit around wells, but work and demand work because the NREGA has reduced migration, given a sense of identity and transformed relationships with power structures. In the meanwhile you can read more about this here and here and here) I would love to take you to Baran in Rajasthan, where Shahriya tribes have been freed from bonded labour because the had a chance at an alternative life, with work under the NREGA.

“.. is anyone out there foolish enough to spend on things like cycles, laptops, tablets, sarees...when politicians of all hues are falling head over heels to pamper you with such gifts?.. And all that these politicos ask is my humble vote. The next time round, I won't choose between candidates to vote, my vote is for the guy who offers me a gadget that I don't own now.” Jest is all very well, but why is it that we don't ask more of our governments? Why don’t we hold them to a higher standard than getting away with giving us a gadget? Why are we selling our valuable votes so short? Instead of Mr. Joseph lamenting about his tax rate;“.. with the kind of taxes the honourable finance minister has imposed on the salaried class, I would have anyway become an aam admi by force. So why not become one by choice..?” I wish he would demand accountability from his tax, which become his government’s public funds, and is used by his country’s democratic systems. There is a strange misconception that the salaried class only pays tax (and doesn’t get any returns on it), and that the poor only benefit from this tax (and don’t work for this benefit). Tax is used for a variety of expenditures, (buying tanks, subsidising fuel, constructing the metro, controlling food prices etc.) and you might value some and seethe over others, but you have every right to keep track of it. The rural poor provide us with an incredible subsidy in terms of the food they produce and in their undervalued physical labour, so lets be cautionary before we oversimplify this equation.

Somehow we keep forgetting that people are directly, and indirectly connected to each other, to our neighbourhood businesses, our society, our banks, our politicians, our newspapers and institutes of state. I assume Mr. Joseph was really concerned about his corporate job during the economic downturn of 2008, and I hope that he realises one of the biggest reasons our country didn't suffer seriously, was because of this massive employment guarantee program, which doesn't gamble on money, but instead creates assets, and funnels money in a decentralised fashion across the country, to large numbers of some of the poorest people in the world.

We’re incredibly lucky to live in a democracy where the poor can demand the right to work. It’s our democracy. Seeing the enormous price people all over the world, particularly in Arab countries have paid to just ask for this, has reinforced again how extremely valuable democratic space is (even if, its a 5% shadow of the concept that exists on paper). We must protect it,use it, uphold each others rights and understand each other within it. Like Fannie Lou Hammer, the feminist and civil rights activist said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Rights denied to one person (or group of people), are rights denied to everyone. If Mr. Joseph ever gets around to quitting his job and becoming an aam aadmi and is then denied his right to work at the mandated wage rate in the NREGA, rest assured, we will fully support him to get his right of a guaranteed hundred days of work at the full wage rate.

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