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Social Justice Legislation under threat from NDA government

Though MNREGA got a breather the designs of this government are clear

Nandita Rao | New Delhi | 26 March, 2015 | 07:10 PM

Price rise is word that most Indians are familiar with, it affects every Indian, irrespective of religion caste or class. To some it may mean one less holiday a year but to others it could result in homelessness or starvation. It is undisputable that price rise or what economists call inflation has a slow down effect on an economy because people can afford less, buy less and therefore sooner or later, Industries will produce less, farmers will grow less and eventually the economy will fall into a recession, as was witnessed by the American economy, half a decade ago.
In a country like India where more than 50 percent from a population of 1.25 billion people (125 crore) lives in rural areas and derives their income from Agriculture, it is very important for a government that wishes to deliver development with good governance, to ensure that people living in rural areas have a secure livelihood and also to ensure that the nation as a whole has a secure supply of food products. The direct consequence of rural unemployment is mass migration to cities. Indian cities already have over burdened infrastructure and hundreds of educated and unemployed youth. The influx of rural labour, leads to an increase in slums and an unhealthy mix of poverty, frustration and loss of indemnity that results in crime. The effect of rural impoverishment is thus felt not only by the economy in terms of decrease in food production and increase in food prices, but also by the urban middle class with an increase in crime in the city. This is not to suggest that crime is the prerogative of the poor, however blue collar crime is mostly a crime of desperation or frustration and poverty forces a human being into those situations.
The last decade saw a maturing of government policy and a realisation that the goal of development cannot be achieved without carrying 50 percent of the population along. It wasn’t enough to build smart cities and cyber cities, while leaving 50% of the population unskilled and unemployed and 100% of the population with no food security. Therefore there was a slew of land mark legislation, all of which were unanimously passed in both houses of parliament. These legislations include The Right to Information Act, The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation Act, The Right to Food Act and The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
It is therefore surprising that the Modi Government which came to power by a thumping and surprising mandate to the BJP on the “Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas” plank has chosen as its first policy initiates to dilute these very laws, which are not only flagship laws of social justice but necessary doles that keep a capitalist economy away from recession. There isn’t a single post World War II country including the United States of America, which does not provide an urban and rural dole. It is also surprising because these acts were passed unanimously with the support of the BJP while it was in the opposition. I shall briefly discuss the proposed amendments and its effects not only on the “poor” as it were but on “you” and “me” who have been misled by the media to believe that tax payers money is being wasted under these legislations.
The land acquisition law that permitted the government to acquire any amount of land and any kind of land, even fertile land for any purpose was drafted by a colonial government in 1894, its sad that even after independence our government, which claims to be for the people and by the people, continued to acquire peoples land, often fertile land for a very low sum of money, not only rendering these people without a livelihood but also reducing our food supply. In 2013, finally under pressure from civil society this Act came to be changed. Under the new Land Acquisition Act, lands to be acquired for Industrial, military or public purposes like hospitals, could be acquired by the Government by paying a fair compensation, which was to be calculated as four times the circle rate or registry price. (This provision would ensure a price closer to the true market rate as we all know that the circle rate and registry price shown don’t indicate the true market rate.) However for private parties the Act mandated that, land would only be acquired if 80% of the land owners gave their consent to the acquisition and not forcibly as an act of the Government. This was to make the playing field fair between builders and farmers. In view of the new Land Acquisition Act, it is no longer possible for corrupt builders to get their buddies in government to acquire huge pieces of land at thrown away prices and then build apartment blocks and sell them at huge profits. It also made the playing field level for smaller private enterprise that did not have the means to oil palms in government but could actually enter into public private partnership with farmers to redevelop the land and transfer the benefit to “you” and “me” as house buyers, by offering houses at lower prices. On the other hand better price for acquiring agricultural land and a proper rehabilitation package that included employment in the redeveloped site or project also ensures that, people from whom land is acquired are not rendered without work and after their money is spent, don’t land up migrating to cities.
The motives of the Modi Government in seeking to amend a law it backed less than a year ago are therefore suspect! Not only does the Government wish to remove the clauses that mandate consent for private sector to acquire land, they also wish to remove the social impact assessment clause which is mandatory, to ensure that before any acquisition is sanctioned, it must be assessed whether the redevelopment will benefit the area more than its current use. The amendment also seeks to remove compensation to those who “lose their livelihood” and restrict the compensation to land owners. This is also unbelievable when the reality is that most of our rural populations are farm workers and not owners, thus acquisition of farm land renders them unemployed.
The amendments to the Act as outlined in the Ordinance have been passed by the Lok Sabha but are held up in the Rajya Sabha. In a rare show of unity all opposition parties have rejected the amendments, so far.
Similarly, the much maligned MNREGA scheme, which the media has called subsidy to the poor, is in fact a subsidy to the city dwellers to keep rural migrants from crowding our cities, by offering them work in their own villages. This increased income that they get, is then used by them to purchase things, thus stimulating industry with their purchasing power, a stimulated industrial output leads to more employment and less demand for MNREGA. However this reality is being hidden and the government wishes to change the two most important aspects of MNREGA that make it so unique in all dole programmes. The first is that all Government expenditure has to be divided 60:40 that is 60 % for unskilled labour (as dole) and 40% for equipment and raw material etc. This prevents big contractors from skimming the money as equipment charges. The government wishes to dilute this and make it 51: 49, thus diluting the primary purpose of giving a livelihood to the poorest of poor. The second amendment proposed by the Modi Government, is to restrict the MNREGA Act to 200 poorest districts. This is laughable because poverty is not restricted by administrative divisions and further rural unemployment is seasonal. MNREGA is designed to offer minimum hours of employment to anyone who can’t secure any other work, these people are therefore scattered across districts and across seasons. The idea is to provide a cushion. The absence of this cushion doesn’t just harm the person losing the livelihood, but the whole economy as the purchasing power shirks thus having a spiral effect on the demand side of the economy.
Though MNREGA got a breather and a surprising hike in allocation in the 2015 Budget, the designs of this government are clear. These proposed amendments therefore clearly expose the lack of commitment of the current government to social justice. However they also expose the lack of commitment of the current government to the stated agenda of development and economic growth. It only exposes the commitment of the government to the builder lobby and the petty trader’s
There have also been rumblings in the present government to curtail the ambit of the Food Security Act and the RTI Act. However these are on hold due to the vehement backlash and the lack of political expedience to change pro –people legislation when several states are going to election. However the day is not far when these two legislations, that guarantee food to the hard working millions, who despite working all day, don’t earn enough to feed their families and the Right to Information Act that has made the high and mighty government ‘babu’ answerable to the common man will also be beaten down.
It is ironic that a government led by a Prime Minister, whose election plank was transparency and good governance wishes to curtail the right to information, in the name of “security”. How does it make my country less secure, if my MCD commissioner has to reply to my letter on non- refund of excess property tax?
It is also ironic that a government which prides itself in celebrating good governance day on Christmas has no qualms in saying if feeding our poor costs too much, led them die! While in the same breath expressing willingness to subsidise corporate adventurism like financing Mr. Adani’s Australian venture.
It has been less than a year since the Bharatiya Janata Party that rode in on the dreams it showed the nation has been ruling India and they have already shown an eagerness to cut short and curtail, the rights and securities that its common citizens enjoy. Somehow it doesn’t seem to ring of good governance or development!