Archive | October, 2009

For a better life

20 Oct


The United Nations’ Human Development Report of 2009 paints an idyllic picture of migrations.



THE recently released United Nations Development Report-2009, titled “Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development”, presents a strong case for governments all over the world to encourage human mobility. Migrations, including those of low-skilled workforce, pay dividends all round, the report says. However, it does not quite attempt to seriously understand why people migrate, sometimes subjecting themselves to horrific situations in destination countries or even within their own countries. The report cautions that migration cannot be a solution to all economic ills or a major factor in development though remittances from migrants may complement and enhance human and economic development. In many countries, the money sent home by migrants often exceeds official aid. For India, such remittances add up to 1.5 times more than foreign direct investment. Then there are the so-called social remittances. These may be in the form of reduction in fertility, higher school enrolment rates and empowerment of women.

These benefits, however, can also be achieved by countries that invest sufficiently in these areas. The report seems to see migration as a boon in disguise for low-skilled and underpaid sections. But to view migration as a strategy for development is to offer a short cut where what is needed is long-term investment by governments. The emphasis on low-skill migration is also slightly disconcerting.

The report presents a core package of reforms, the “six pillars”, as it calls them: opening existing entry channels for more workers, especially those with low skills; ensuring basic human rights for migrants, from basic services such as education and health care to the right to vote; lowering the transaction costs of migration; finding collaborative solutions that benefit both destination communities and migrants; easing internal migration; and adding migration as a component of the development strategies of the countries of origin.

The question is why can the origin countries not address the livelihood issues of low-skilled workers and provide them with long-term solutions that not only enhance their personal well-being but also boost overall growth? Indeed, the report seems to see the need for migrations from the point of view of developed countries. It says that there is a strong case for increased access to sectors with a high demand for labour, particularly for the low-skilled and that this is particularly important for developed countries because their populations are ageing. Therefore, it is in the overall interest of developed countries to end discrimination against migrants.

The world’s population will grow by a third over the next four decades, and much of this growth will be in developing countries. The report says that in one in every five countries, including Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Russian Federation, populations are expected to shrink. It argues that a demographic transition has begun; the ageing of populations is a widespread phenomenon, a natural consequence of a decline in death rates and a slower decline in birth rates that has occurred in most developing countries. It is also estimated that within the next 15 years, new entrants to the labour force in developing countries will far exceed the total number of working-age people. These trends will put a burden on wages and increase the incentives to move among potential employees in poorer countries.

In developed countries, the proportion of the elderly will rise markedly so that there will be 71 non-working age people for every 100 of working age. This, argues the report, will make it more difficult for developed countries to pay for the care of their children and old people as publicly funded education and health systems are paid with taxes levied on the working population. These demographic trends, the report concludes, go in favour of relaxing the barriers to the entry of migrants.

The report presupposes that people have an innate urge to migrate. Even if that is true, it does not alter the fact that the compelling circumstances that lie behind this phenomenon should be addressed. The report also presupposes that much of migration takes place voluntarily. It is not a voluntary decision that forces a villager in India, used to living under the open skies, to take up residence in a congested urban slum. The report does not adequately explore what makes people decide to migrate.

The report, however, does not advocate wholesale liberalisation of the migration process, arguing that people in the destination countries have a right to shape their societies. It argues that research commissioned by the UNDP shows that people in destination countries are generally supportive of further migration when jobs are available and appreciate the gains – economic, social and cultural – that increased diversity can bring. Therefore, migrants are welcome in a country that has already many jobs to offer.


The report seems to downplay the impact of recession. Jeni Klugman, the lead author, argues that a job crisis is bad for migrants and admits that several destination countries are taking steps to encourage or compel migrants to leave. “With recovery,” he says, “many of the same underlying trends that have been driving movement during the past half-century will resurface, attracting people to move.” But it is futile to suggest until such a recovery that developing countries should encourage their low-skilled workers to migrate.

The 1997 Human Development Report had observed that the principles of free global markets were applied selectively and that the global market for unskilled labour was not as free as the market for industrial country exports or capital. There has not been much change in the situation since then. The 2009 report admits that the current recession is likely to have long-lasting, maybe even permanent, effects on incomes and employment opportunities. It says that the financial crisis has turned into a job crisis. Quoting from studies, it says that the unemployment rate has already exceeded 8.4 per cent in the United States, which by May 2009 had lost nearly six million jobs since December 2007, with the total number of jobless people rising to 14.5 million. In Spain, the unemployment rate climbed as high as 15 per cent by April 2009 and topped 28 per cent among migrants.

The report corrects certain popular misconceptions. It says that most migrants do not even cross national borders but move within their own countries: “Nearly 740 people are internal migrants, almost four times the number of international migrants. Among international migrants, less than 30 per cent move from developing to developed countries.” For instance, only 3 per cent of Africans live outside the country of birth. Intra-country migrations are also fraught with problems, especially when migrants have to face questions regarding their identity.

Instead of making out a strong case for governments to address the root causes of migration by the very poor, including what is now called distress migration, the report seems to present an idyllic picture. It claims that migrants from the poorest countries saw an average 15-fold increase in income, doubling in education enrolment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality after moving to a country with more opportunities.

Quoting recent research, the report claims that the health of migrants improved markedly during their first year in the destination country. Is migration, then, the policy that poorer countries should evolve to bring about an improvement in the health of their populations? Does the solution not lie in policies that enable such population to build better lives in their own countries?

The ranking of India, a developing country, in the Human Development Index, released each year as part of the annual Human Development Report, is a pathetic 134 out of 182 countries, the same as it was in 2006. People’s lives, then, have not changed much during this period of high growth in the country. The report attempts to see migration of certain sections from the developing to the developed world as a positive thing. But that may not be the perception of governments or even people, especially in a context of economic hardship. It is no coincidence that jingoism, xenophobia and inclusiveness are accentuated in an economic crisis that takes away jobs.

In such a situation, large-scale migrations from developing countries to developed countries without legal commitments from the host and guest nations may not result in the kind of benefits presupposed throughout the report.


Social and political dividends from NREGA

19 Oct

Vidya Subrahmaniam, IN THE HINDU

In the final analysis, what makes any NREGA social audit worth all the pain and effort is the awareness it creates among poor beneficiaries.

It is a measure of the hard labour that awaits NREGA activists in other States that a social audit conducted under blazing arc lights, and with so much official support, such as the one in Bhilwara in Rajasthan, could run into so many roadblocks. Virtually all of the Rajasthan government ( in September Rajasthan became the second government after Andhra Pradesh to set up a Directorate of Social Audit) was at the disposal of the Bhilwara audit team which also had the full backing of C.P. Joshi, Union Minister for Rural Development, elected to Parliament from Bhilwara.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey said they chose Bhilwara for the audit exercise because they wanted to see if the Minister could face up to an NREGA audit in his constituency; after all, there was no knowing what the audit would reveal. Yet a question arises: Would Mr. Joshi have shown interest in the Bhilwara audit had he not been its MP? Secondly, what happens to NREGA work in States that lack men and women of the calibre and commitment of Ms Roy, Mr. Dey and other MKSS activists? Can a programme’s success be made dependent on a few individuals? What happens when the government shows no interest which is the case in most States?

Mr. Dey argued that the MKSS social audit had visibly and strongly demonstrated the positive effects of civil society-government collaboration. The unity of purpose shown in Bhilwara by social auditors, government, media and the office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General was replicable in other States. Indeed, if Minister Joshi took the trouble to watch over the audit in his constituency, it only showed that there was huge political capital to be made from pushing NREGA.

Through the audit the Bhilwara team was inundated by calls from people impressed by its work in the district. And a day after the gargantuan exercise wound up, Congress MP from Alwar, Jitendra Singh, turned up in Bhilwara asking that the MKSS organise an NREGA audit in his constituency.

The Rajasthan experiment is itself based on the Andhra Pradesh government’s success with conducting NREGA audits. The A.P. government did this off its own bat, at the urging of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, whereas in Rajasthan the push came from civil society. The A.P. government was the first to institutionalise social audit by means of a Social Audit Directorate. Since then the state government has gone a further step with a committed budget for social auditing and provisions to host audit results on its NREGA website.

At a meeting the Bhilwara audit team had with Rajasthan government officials and other experts, Sowmya Kidambi, an MKSS activist deputed to work with the A.P. government, strongly advocated bringing audit results into the public domain via computerisation, arguing that this had greatly increased transparency in Andhra Pradesh.

In the final analysis, what makes any NREGA social audit worth all the pain and effort is the awareness it creates among poor beneficiaries, who slowly but surely learn to hold the programme’s managers to account. A quick survey by The Hindu in a cross section of Bhilwara’s villages showed that the village people had fully internalised their rights and entitlements. But because of the patriarchal, dominating nature of the panchayat set-up, most of them lacked the courage to speak up. This situation would gradually change if accountability was built into the system.

Accountability could also impact social evils like untouchability, which the audit team found was widely prevalent in NREGA sites. In many panchayats, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe NREGA beneficiaries were given separate utensils and prevented from accessing common resources.

The social and economic spin-offs from even partial implementation of NREGA were only too evident in Bhilwara. NREGA beneficiaries were unanimous that the programme had improved their lives. For years the Bhil tribal community in Malanas in Gram Panchyat Jindras had battled hunger and poverty, travelling out of the State in search of work. Today, most Bhil wives are employed under NREGA, bringing stability and assured incomes to families that were until recently desperately poor. NREGA also made valuable contributions in times of drought which was the case in Rajasthan this year. Though poor, few families in Bhilwara seemed on the brink of starvation. Besides, as many villagers pointed out, the minimum wage of Rs. 100 a day under the NREGA had increased wage levels across the private sector, benefiting both families that could not avail NREGA work and families that had completed the NREGA quota of 100 work days per family. As MKSS activist Shanker Singh remarked: “NREGA has greatly increased the bargaining power of poor people. They are no longer willing to work cheap.”

Poverty reduction potential

One has only to look at the funds the NREGA has placed in the hands of local administrators to understand its poverty reduction potential . Bhilwara alone drew Rs. 330 crore from the NREGA budget in 2009-2010. As MKSS activists stress, “funds are available for the asking now. Assuming the programme is properly utilised, NREGA can change the complexion of poor India.”

Yet the Bhilwara social audit also revealed that funds can easily get into the wrong hands. Indeed, even as the MKSS team deservedly takes credit for the massive Bhilwara social audit, it must know that it can hardly rest on its laurels. On the concluding day of the audit, a Rajasthan Minister suggested that while sarpanchs caught with their hands in the till must be made to refund the misappropriated funds, they ought not to be punished. This is exactly what the sarpanchs demanded at the various jan sunwais (public hearings). If this point were conceded, the social audit would lose its purpose, irreversibly damaging NREGA. Other dangers include threatened official amendments to a job programme hailed far and wide as progressive and empowering.

Even with all these ifs and buts, the Bhilwara exercise is worth emulating by other States. For as the audit and the responses to it showed, there is political dividend to be had from investing in NREGA. If politicians can use NREGA to win elections that will surely be the job guarantee programme’s best guarantee for survival.

Which politician would not like that?

NREGA audit: Bhilwara shows the way

17 Oct

The Bhilwara social audit team repeatedly came up against resistance. Yet the coming together of civil society and government in Rajasthan augurs well for the future of NREGA.


For watchers of India’s grassroots democracy, the place to be in recently was Bhilwara in Rajasthan; the town and the countryside were decked out in carnival colours for an audit exercise that saw thousands come together — social rights activists led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan’s stalwart campaigners Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, NGOs, State government officials and Ministers, and observers from the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India .

The project under the scanner was India’s showpiece Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the purpose of the social audit was to assess how the programme worked, if it worked at all. Naturally, it was democracy, warts and all, in exhibition, with commitment and dedication battling entrenched vested interests at every step.

First, the positives. The most striking thing about the campaign was its unflagging spirit. For close to a fortnight starting October 1, bands of social audit activists, among them farmers, labourers and schoolteachers, ate, breathed, slept and walked — yes walked — NREGA. A total of 125 tolis (groups) set out on foot across 375 panchayats, poring over muster rolls, job cards, cash books, technical sanctions and other NREGA documents. They carried out spot inspections, gathered feedback from beneficiaries, and took complaints right down to where it mattered — to the local post office that blocked payment of wages and to the sarpanch who, villagers fearfully whispered, had siphoned off NREGA funds.

The padayatris drew no stipend, not taking even a food allowance, and quite gamely let on that “we were told we wouldn’t get a paisa, and must ask for food from the villagers.”

For those of us in the media who had descended on Bhilwara straight from the elitist environs of Delhi, there was something unreal about so many young men and women toiling hard without expectations of a reward. Yet how could anyone miss the commitment of a people who trudged from village to village in the hot afternoon sun, singing and shouting NREGA slogans? Sona chandi main nahi maanga; gadi, bangla, main nahi maanga; Limca, Shimca, Pepsi Cola, main nahi maanga; rozi roti, purna padhaiyee, photocopy; desh ka kharcha, kharcha ka hisab, main ne maanga (I don’t want gold and silver; car and bungalow; nor do I want Limca and Pepsi Cola; But I do want food, full literacy, photocopies and an account of public spending).

A bigger surprise was the Rajasthan government’s drive and enthusiasm. The young District Collector of Bhilwara, Manju Rajpal, was on the job 24×7, making surprise checks, holding meetings late into the night, examining complaints and booking FIRs against errant panchayat staff. Banna Lal, the State government’s newly appointed director of social audit, came with a formidable reputation, having unearthed a huge scandal in a food-for-work programme in Janawad in Rajsamand district. Also in Bhilwara for the audit was the State Commissioner for NREGA, Rajendra Bhanawat — again a tough taskmaster judging by the steel he displayed at a meeting with zilla parishad Chief Executive Officers. When a CEO quoted a village sarpanch as saying he needed to share his bribes with “people on top,” Mr. Bhanawat shot back: “Who are the people on top? I want the names.”

But this was not all. The Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Bharat Singh sat through five hours of a jan sunwai (public hearing) on the social audit, and the final day saw the organisers debate the outcome of the audit in the presence of Union Minister for Rural Development C.P. Joshi. Mr. Joshi, of course, was brought by a personal reason to Bhilwara: It is his parliamentary constituency.

Prima facie it all seemed too good to be true. As a hack remarked, the selfless MKSS activists, the earnest Collector, a government that would go the extra mile to facilitate the audit, all recalled a 1970s feel-good Doordarshan documentary more than real-time India with its conflicts and confrontations.

Obviously, the Bhilwara project was not quite the glitchless, seamless mass movement it appeared to first-time observers. Behind the impressive grand finale was a history of struggle for accountability in public spending. The MKSS had met with resistance in all its previous social audits in Rajasthan. In 2008 in Jhalawar, MKSS audit members were brutally set upon by village officials. The Bhilwara audit was itself preceded by days of dharna by sarpanchs (village heads) who feared being held to account. And though they came around eventually, the truce turned out to be fragile. In a lot of places, the records had to be wrested from reluctant panchayat officials. There were also showdowns between the sarpanchs and the auditors at many of the jan sunwais held on the penultimate day. In Baran village, a young woman auditor who reported irregularities in NREGA work was heckled by sarpanchs who told her plainly that she was a busybody. In Taswaria, the village heads insisted on being spared punishment for wrongdoings, unmindful of the presence of Minister Bharat Singh.

The social auditors confronted irregularities almost everywhere, and these went well beyond the expected complaints around delayed and stalled payment of wages. Job cards, required by law to be in the beneficiaries’ possession, were routinely withheld by the panchayat staff, resulting in NREGA workers not being able to claim what they earned. NREGA is premised on simple transparency, an example being the use of village walls to display work and payment details so that these become public knowledge. Yet the auditors repeatedly found fake muster rolls, bare walls and misplaced job cards. The material used in construction work was substandard and record books showed inflated figures against usage.

In the villages in Panchayat Samiti Hurda, the auditors were stonewalled by a vexing collusion between the panchayat staff and a powerful section of villagers for the use of JCB earthmovers for digging trenches. NREGA’s cost components are just two, labour and material, with asset creation being the end product. Yet because the programme’s primary objective is labour employment, machines, which would speed up asset creation, are excluded from it unless justified by impossibly difficult terrain. Even in such a situation, machines must be separately accounted for and not adjusted against material costs.

The sarpanch-villager collusion worked like this: The sarpanch and his acolytes would hire the JCB machine to cut down time and labour, yet fudge the record books to show full employment and extended periods of work, thus earning huge sums of money for no labour at all. Obviously, the conspiracy excluded the bulk of the workers in whose names the wages were drawn. When social auditors brought up this point at the Taswaria public hearing, they were shouted down by the sarpanchs and their supporters, all insisting that they were not up to doing tough NREGA labour. One villager challenged MKSS functionary Shanker Singh to do the labour himself.

Mr. Singh tried reasoning with the angry gathering. Using limericks and humour, he argued that the JCB was not an innocent machine but a precursor to big corporate giants eyeing the NREGA’s vast funds. “Mind you, the minute corporates come in, NREGA goes out,” Mr. Singh said, comparing the situation to the story of the mouse and the fat man. The man was unperturbed when the rat ran over his belly but in reality the rodent had shown the way to snakes and scorpions that would surely follow. As Mr. Singh explained to The Hindu, in Rajasthan alone, an estimated Rs. 9,500 crore will be spent on NREGA in 2009, making the programme lucrative for big corporates. If they came in, the NREGA would cease to be a wage employment programme.

The roadblocks that the Bhilwara social audit teams faced cannot however detract from the achievements of the exercise, which for the first time ever united two sections conventionally at loggerheads: civil society and government. And obviously the irregularities we witnessed in Bhilwara were nothing compared to the situation in other States where NREGA was struggling to get off the ground.

Reluctant as the Bhilwara sarpanchs were, they produced the account books in the end, enabling the audit teams to understand how the system worked and plan for future improvements.

As Ms Roy explained, “Yes, there are irregularities but I would think these form a small proportion of NREGA work. More to the point, through years of struggle we have institutionalised a system of transparency in Rajasthan which ensures against big scams.” Mr. Dey saw the audit as a prototype for NREGA assessment elsewhere in the country. “We have shown that given political will, resistance can be beaten down.”

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