India’s experience with the right to work

Employment & Income,Inclusive Economy12 May 2014Jetti Oliver

Making people producers of goods is strategic for growth and development.

Paid and productive employment is an essential element for the youth of a nation to gainfully employ themselves and actively associate with the growth and development of the nation. States and national governments have the obligation to create decent jobs commensurate with the education, research, training, skills and capabilities of educated youth to use the country’s talent for the peace and prosperity of the nation. A paid job also helps young people to develop a systematic and ordered life to better follow the rules of society and not fall victim to the saying ‘an idle mind is a devil’s workshop’.

This article is to be part of the debate on employment organized by The Broker to draw experiences from around the world and gain insights from the worlds of knowledge. As such, it is an attempt to reflect on ongoing experiments and successful stories of employability, employment, joblessness, entrepreneurship, etc.

While feeding more mouths is a liability, more hands are an asset that can outweigh the liability. The productive energies of human resources need to be better organized and streamlined. The biodiversity at the disposal of mankind far exceeds the amount of food required to feed the growing millions. That makes it so shocking when we hear of starvation, deaths from hunger, and malnutrition because of food shortages. This state of affairs is common in the badly governed regimes around the world. Good quality of life, to the full measure of everyone’s capacity, therefore has to be a priority for the government of any country. Often, the powers that be leave peoples’ welfare to market forces, which is unethical, short-sighted and unacceptable on the part of modern governments.

I remember 40 years ago, when I was helping small tribal farmers in India to improve their production by adopting new farming practices. Continuous drought destroyed the best of their efforts. Consequently, they either had to sell their chickens, other livestock, and even their tools at throwaway prices to those with money, or they had to become daily wage workers. Because of surplus of labour, wages fell from 10 rupees to 5 to 2 and finally to 1 rupee a day. The farmers had no choice but to accept these rates, as the impact of the drought was so harsh. Gruel centres were opened to provide food for the starving masses.

And then, to prevent gruel centres becoming cruel centres, ‘food for work’ was initiated under Public Law 480 to sustain the bargaining capacity of the exploited farmers. They were issued with 50 rupees worth of food (wheat or rice and oil) per day, exceeding the rates they received from the food and money hoarders, in exchange for performing public works. The work was initially laying roads, which were not durable, and it was substituted with digging irrigation wells. This widened the gap between the haves and the havenots, as the havenots got daily wages while the haves secured a permanent source of irrigation. This is one example of the harshness of market forces on one hand and the unintended effects of planning for development that had a negative impact on the poor and unskilled on the other. It is, therefore, essential for the state to intervene strategically to enhance people’s skills and therefore their employability.

In an agrarian-based economy – farming, diversified farming, livestock management, growing of orchards, fruit processing, forest wealth management, ocean resource management, water resource management, hydropower development, alternate energy resources exploration, infrastructure development, etc. – offer a wide variety of employment opportunities, but these are feasible only if those in governance have the vision to see and the courage to act.

If we look at state revenue in India, the highest percentage of income comes not from agriculture, or even from industry, but from the services sector. If 100 sheep are brought in from village A to village B, the head of village B is happy that the village has the added value of 100 sheep. This may be the case from block to block, district to district or state to state. But goods moving from one place to another does not lead to production and therefore, production in each place needs to be fostered so that it can add to the overall growth and strength of the GDP. Making people producers of goods is strategic for growth and development. It is not one landlord trying to make mass production but production by masses, as Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, advocated.

India has young people who are technically qualified with high employable skills. We have others who are dropouts, who have not been taught the lessons of life, with blurred or no vision or direction for a desirable destination. Even those who have excelled in their studies need soft skills, guidance counseling, hands-on training and placement opportunities. They are the brightest, who should be encouraged and groomed for leadership, research and innovation. The state has to focus on this youth force not only as a matter of employment but as a means of building the nation’s GDP.

We are grateful to the current government in India for initiating a series of programmes geared to employment generation. In the rural sector, under the ‘Right to Work Act’, a national rural employment guarantee scheme was initiated that ensures the rural population secured work for 100 to 150 days every year during the slack season. The government also set up a National Skill Development Corporation, which trains school dropouts and other undereducated people in different skills, arts and entrepreneurship and helps them find job placements, with entrepreneurship development and so on. Grameena (Rural) Banks create opportunities for self-help groups and other entrepreneurs to establish small businesses to lead a life of quality.

The biggest task is building awareness about these programmes and motivating people who would otherwise remain indifferent to these ventures to promote productive employment and occupations. Worldwide, the most untapped sources are funds earmarked for research. Unfortunately, a lot of young people, in spite of their higher level of education, have not developed an interest in or turned their hands to the art of research: research in science, technology, oceanography, or whatever. The huge allocations made to research are underutilized, signifying the fact that the youth of the world are yet to demand their share of research projects and lead their countries to new innovations and to knowledge societies.