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CELLPHONES IN LIEU OF RICE
- The rural employment guarantee scheme is just tokenism

The left is in a bind. The government has gone ahead and decided to sell in the market 10 per cent of the equity of the profit-making public sector enterprise, Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited, and this despite the forthright declaration in the common minimum programme that no such impropriety would be embarked upon. The left is equally unhappy at the government's tardiness to implement something that is very much there in the CMP: a national employment guarantee scheme.

The factors underlying the problem are not difficult to unravel. The CMP is only a number of pledges. The Congress, which heads the government, has to pay formal obeisance to it. The party however has another agenda, mostly implied or hinted, set for it by the Bretton Woods institutions. To ensure undisturbed parliamentary majority for the regime, a gesture of loyalty has to be displayed to the CMP. On the other hand, the Congress, in thraldom to the globalized ambience, must conform to the text of the grammar laid down by the World Bank-International Monetary Fund duo. The left had committed a tactical mistake right at the beginning. It went on record that, under all circumstances ' that would include even when the United Progressive Alliance government deviated from the CMP ' it would not vote out the regime since the alternative would mean the return of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power. Sonia Gandhi's loyal troops therefore feel reasonably safe to concentrate on craving the favours of the Bretton Woods twins. The latter want disinvestments of public sector undertakings; they also dislike the idea of the government of India's frittering away of money on what they consider to be wasteful boondoggles such as an employment guarantee scheme.

Under relentless pressure from the left, the government finally introduced in parliament a rural employment guarantee scheme. It is an extremely truncated version of what was promised in the CMP. It provides assurance of work only in the rural sector and only for one hundred days in the year. Even this abridged scheme is yet to be formally operational, notwithstanding the completion of one full year by the government. The blame for this delay the regime is laying at the door of the BJP. One of the BJP bigwigs happens to be the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee attached to the ministry of rural development: the rural employment guarantee bill, it is being alleged, is held up by this standing committee, what can the poor government do' One can however quote dozens of instances where the government has proceeded on particular legislative measures without bothering about a parliamentary standing committee's recommendations or non-recommendations. The failure till now to implement even the abridged scheme is therefore not simply on account of procedural difficulties. The government's heart is not in the matter.

Those keen on the rural employment guarantee scheme are sure of their facts. Agriculture is still the livelihood for more than three-fifths of the nation's working force and thus provides sustenance for more than two-fifths of the nation. Both farm production and farm employment, data officially released suggest, have declined in the post-liberalization period compared to what they were in the preceding decade. The rate of growth of agricultural production in the Eighties was roughly 3.2 per cent, while the rate of growth in employment was 1.2 per cent. In contrast, in the Nineties, while farm output grew, but at the reduced rate of 1.7 per cent per annum, farm employment, instead of growing, actually declined at an average annual rate of 5.3 per cent. The woes brought on in the Indian countryside in the wake of the official decision to abide by the conditionalities attached to membership of the World Trade Organization have their own story to tell. Daily reports from practically all parts of the country about rural distress, often culminating in starvation deaths, have by now ceased to cause any ripple. The media consider such reports as not globalization-friendly, and have a way of absentmindedly disposing of them.

The irony lies elsewhere. Millions and millions of people are without work and therefore without purchasing power to buy food. At the other end, something like 20 million tonnes of foodgrains lie unutilized in government godowns. The cost of carrying year after year a stockpile of this order is mindboggling. Reports emanate from time to time of a portion of this stockpile becoming unfit for human consumption. The authorities nonetheless continue to be adamant: no expansion of the public distribution system enabling supply of grains to the famished population at subsidized prices. They have been equally reluctant to re-launch food-for-work programmes which had met at least with limited success in preceding decades.

Against this background, a rural employment guarantee scheme, carefully planned and carefully executed, could, it is said, serve, simultaneously, four different objectives: (a) provide food for the hungry; (b) reduce the load of rural unemployment; (c) lighten the burden of carrying cost for foodstock lying with public agencies; and (d) create new rural assets. The gains seem to be so overwhelmingly obvious that the issue of relative scarcity of resources should not stand in the way. An annual outlay of Rs 30,000 crore or thereabouts on the rural employment guarantee scheme will certainly generate more social contentedness than a similar amount spent on buying armaments or luxury passenger planes from overseas. As far as it is possible to perceive, the objection to the programme is not on grounds of lack of finance. It is almost ideological, with a coating of class bias. It is based on the supposedly moral precept of there being no free lunch in life; thereby disfavouring free or subsidized food even to the dying. Orthodoxy of this kind has not prevented the authorities from sending to the United States of America foodgrains at highly subsidized prices for the consumption of the pigs over there. American pigs must have been reckoned as deserving of more sympathy than poverty-stricken men, women and children back home.

On this issue, quarters close to the Bretton Woods institutions have consistently played the role of staunch agnostics. Instead of squandering thousands of crores of rupees on the employment guarantee scheme so as to strengthen the demand side of the rural economic system, they would like the authorities to concentrate on the supply side. Besides, whatever is done to strengthen the supply side will, according to their belief, be to the advantage of class interest proximate to the powers-that-be. Their concrete proposal is to divert the money provisionally earmarked for the employment guarantee scheme for projects to build more and more highways and feeder roads to link the highways with the Indian countryside. Improvement in this manner of the rural infrastructure, the nation is being assured, will facilitate the movement of foodgrains and other farm products to urban areas ' and to ports too, thereby helping exports as well. Such strengthening of the infrastructure will also help industrial goods, including imported industrial goods, to penetrate into the countryside and find a market among the comfortably off in the rural sector. Forget the poor, they do not directly belong to this agenda. But as long as transport picks up, trade too will and as trade flourishes, rural prosperity will take off. Once that happens, the trickle-down factor will activize itself, the poorer sections will accordingly experience an increase in income and employment.

A further suggestion is also on offer. Part of the money saved by scrapping the employment guarantee scheme may be deployed to encourage the manufacture and distribution of cellular telephones. Cellphones are regarded as an important resource for developing instant communications between town and country, also with the great outside world. A spectacular advance in communications in this manner will vastly add to rural welfare, so much so that one should not worry about providing the rural poor with foodgrains; handing over to each of them a cellular telephone is a preferred alternative.

It is on the basis of such fastidious prescriptions that an important plank of the CMP is sought to be scuttled.

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