governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Aruna Roy’

So, you want “good” jobs.

toyota

Growth with jobs is the new Eldorado. At its core, the raging debate around job creation in India is really about how far India has traveled down the conventional path of industrialized development and its proxy — long-term employment, with defined benefits and social security. This metric of economic performance is anachronistic in the post-industrial ecosystem.

Long term, formal employment is declining even in the developed economies. The future of work is casual, possibly off-site, with skill sets and job descriptions that are constantly adapting to technology and re-schooling a necessity even for the middle aged. We may never ever reach the copybook stage of industrial age employment. India, unlike China, is largely informal and ineffectively regulated for work standards and safeguards. Out of a workforce of around 427 million, formal employment is just 14 per cent at 60 million.

Mind you, there are 972 million people more than 15 years of age who could work. But the lack of opportunity in the workplace and cultural constraints keep 56 per cent of then (a vast majority of them being women) at home. This probably explains our penchant to get to a higher level of formalized employment, say 60 per cent of the workforce, and thereby resemble a developed economy.

Statistical jousts around employment

The ongoing statistical debate between government economists (of the Niti Aayog and those in the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council) and external experts (from CMIE, for example) revolves around the number of jobs created since 2014 as an index of economic performance. The CMIE data, based on quarterly surveys, shows that net-job creation in 2017, over the previous year, was just 1.4 million, primarily due to large job losses of seven million among young adults (aged 15-24) and three million among veterans (aged 65 or above) significantly diluted the positive impact of an addition of 12 million jobs in the age group of 25 to 64.

The government appears disinclined to trust large surveys. It prefers to rely on the monthly payroll data. There is the inexplicable issue of just 12 per cent of women, of 15 years and above, being part of the workforce in the CMIE survey data. Gallingly, 21 per cent of Saudi Arabian women work. Can it be that 88 per cent of Indian women above 15 years actually do not wish to work? Compared to such quirks in the CMIE survey data, there is a comfortable certainty about the payroll data. The only problem is — payroll data is unlikely to provide the granularity required across a largely informal economy.

Even if one is disinclined to believe the outlier estimation by economist Surjit Bhalla, of an addition of 15 million jobs in 2017, the good news is that data from the Employees Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) shows an addition of three million jobs during the six months till February 2018 — an encouraging growth of 10 per cent per annum over the 60 million employee accounts. It is unclear, however, if these are all new jobs. The digital outreach, increased tax oversight and the GST implementation are all encouraging formalisation of operations, including payments to existing informal workers. Payroll data from the New Pension Scheme for government employees shows a similar happy trend, with an addition of 0.4 million employees to the base of around 5 million employee accounts.

It remains unclear where this statistical jousting is leading to, except to the scoring of political brownie points with the relevant political constituencies.

Workers under threat – too many, chasing too few jobs

headload

For the large mass of workers, a “formal” sector “good” job in the classic industrial sense of the term is becoming increasingly unlikely. Humans are under threat. Karl Marx was on the button, two centuries ago, when he intuited that it is humans who add value in the economy. We still do. But we became so good at extracting value from human effort that we have marginalized ourselves.  Machines today, substitute for all but the most advanced cognitive human skills. Once machine learning becomes deeper and autonomous of human effort, technology czars like Ellon Musk, presciently point to a dystopic, machine versus man future for the planet.

We do not have to imagine what it will be like in in 2050. Even today, deepening levels of worker anxiety about retaining a job affects large swathes of the developed economies. Indians and others in the developing world are already well acquainted with this syndrome. We hesitate to take medical leave even when we are sick. And if you think that happens only in the informal sector, think again. Even politicians and senior government officials fear being nudged out, merely by not being visible.

Low levels of formal employment require enhanced government intervention. As work becomes intermittent or irregular, even for skilled employees, the potential loss of income must be cushioned by social protection schemes to keep individuals and families afloat.

Listen to the Jholawallahs

Dreze Aruna

The NREGA program is a basic form of such cushioning, which benefits around 20 million manual workers. Jean Dreze is right when he asserts that access to work is more than just another way of putting public money into needy private hands. Aruna Roy has the same message. Collectives have a dynamic, which empowers the marginalised. They provide institutionalized support for challenging traditional, arbitrary and often illegal entitlements. They also establish a new and healthy tradition of direct democracy.

The early noughties presented a future which looked impossibly bright and full of possibilities, girded by shining bands of opportunity crisscrossing the globe. That vision has now dimmed. The environmental, cultural and institutional limits of globalization are now visible. We would do well, however, not to be blindsided by the inevitable ratcheting down of global aspirations. It could turn out to be a hard landing for the overly ambitious.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 5, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/050518/jobs-nature-of-work-it-may-be-time-to-rethink-basics.html

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

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