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ANY faint hope that the economic policies of the UPA might strike a trajectory different from the ‘shining India’ obsessions of the NDA is now getting dimmer. With key policymakers obsessed with burgeoning forex reserves, the booming stock market and generous inflows of FDI, it is no surprise that the much touted National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2004 has run into rough weather even before the draft bill has been presented for debate in Parliament.

For all those taken in by the progressive sounding promises in the Common Minimum Programme, the slogan ‘Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath’ must be appearing particularly hollow. Not only did it require the intervention of the Supreme Court to energise the mid-day meal programme in government primary schools, for all its claims to transparency in functioning the rules governing the Freedom of Information Act have still to be notified, this despite the approval of the act by both houses of Parliament.

For a country as deeply marked by poverty, unemployment and malnutrition, the case for a major intervention in the form of a public works programme guaranteeing employment at statutory minimum wages for all those in need seems self-evident. Surely for a regime supported by the Left Front, this ought to have been an over-riding priority. Yet, if media reports are to be believed, the draft act is in the process of being diluted to the point of irrelevance.

Even otherwise, the proposed act was a cautious and limited proposal, entitling every rural household to 100 days of employment at minimum wages on asset creating public works programmes, and that too in only 150 districts. Note that there is nothing for the urban unemployed, that the entitlement extends to only one member per household with the number of days limited to 100.

Equally, so far there is little clarity about the wage rate, how the individuals will be selected, the public works permitted, whether the payment will be in cash or a mix of cash and food, or the agencies through which the programme will be implemented. Nor do we know whether the Central act, once passed, will be uniformally applicable across the country or whether state governments will have to separately legislate for their provinces. Nor who is expected to meet the costs of the programme.

Despite all these limitations, many saw the proposed act as a useful first step. At the least it would shift public works programmes, currently episodic and dependant on the whims of respective regimes, into the arena of a legal entitlement. But with both the Ministry of Finance and Planing Commission uneasy about the likely costs of the programme, citing fears of inflation and corruption, already efforts are underway to dilute its provisions – the minimum wage offered, merging existing employment and food for work schemes into the programme, and not specifying the time frame within which the coverage would expand from the proposed 150 districts to the entire country.

In addition to fears generated about the enormous costs of the scheme, with estimates ranging from Rs 20,000 crore to Rs 60,000 crore per year, the act is being derided as deeply divisive, in effect a coup d’etat by a small bunch of ‘well-meaning’ but ‘woolly-headed’ individuals who in their desire to do good might irreparably damage the country and the reform process.

Any meaningful EGA would raise the minimum wage floor; that after all is its raison d’etre. So it’s hardly surprising that most employers – be they state governments or small farmers – are not enthusiastic. More distressing, however, is the lack of engagement of trade unions and the left parties, ipso facto limiting the campaign for the act to a smaller group of individuals, NGOs and social movements. Given the simultaneous pressure to introduce a fiscal responsibility bill and sharply reduce both revenue and fiscal deficits, efforts to redirect the deployment of public resources to benefit the needy face a hostile environment.

Clearly the campaign, and the accompanying discourse, has to more effectively engage with the concerns about the details of the act and programme and involve legislators. Just reiterating potential benefits – on poverty reduction, nutrition, creation of public assets, reduced rural-urban migration, and so on – is inadequate to convince the sceptical, more so if they are well-entrenched in the power structure.

The challenge then is to widen the constituency of those believing in, and willing to struggle for, a more equitable, provisioning of public goods and services. That, after all, is what the UPA promised and we should compel it to honour its commitments. A failure to do so will cost us dear.

Harsh Sethi