Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Eminent citizens oppose Govt.'s plan to dilute MGNREGA*

People's Action for Employment Guarantee called a press conference at Indian Women's Press Corps (New Delhi) on 8 October, 2014 to oppose the dilution of Mahatma Gandhi NREGA Act. Addressing the conference, social activist Nikhil Dey informed that prior to the 16th Lok Sabha election, BJP and other major political parties promised to improve the implementation of MGNREGA. However instead of doing so, after the election the NDA Government tried to roll back the job guaranty programme in 3 different ways—a. Budget allocation for the programme has been squeezed despite MGNREGA being demand-based; b. The Government is changing the nature of programme from labour intensive to material intensive; and c. The Act is being converted into a scheme by restricting its implementation in one-third of the blocks in India that are considered as backward.

Nikhil Dey argued that the law cannot be abrogated by the Executive. It is illegal to make changes in the schedule of MGNREGA. The Parliament too cannot be allowed to make amendments in the MGNREGA since the NDA Government at the Centre did not get the mandate to make changes in it when it was voted to power. A recent RTI reveals that due to proposed change in the labour to material ratio, officials at the Ministry of Rural Development apprehend that “5 crore households will be adversely affected by this decision” that goes against the spirit of the Act.

In order to keep the expenditure on MGNREGA (as a proportion GDP) the same as it was in 2007-08, the Government should spend nearly Rs. 60,000 crore to Rs. 65,000 crore annually at present. Dey said that the motive behind changing the labour to material ratio is to allow the entry of contractors. However, the move will also discriminate against villages where unemployment and poverty is high. The marginalized and the primitive tribals will die due to hunger and starvation in the absence of this programme.

Nikhil Dey said that MPs from across the political spectrum will be approached to oppose the dilution of MGNREGA. People shall be mobilised against the changes proposed in MGNREGA.

Former member of the National Advisory Council and RTI activist Aruna Roy alleged that the Government is in denial. She said that not all schemes are getting closed down due to the presence of corruption. However, MGNREGA has been systematically targeted since its inception. A letter to the Prime Minister of India opposing the dilution of the Act has been signed by more than 200 eminent citizens. A recent RTI reveals that the Union Rural Development Minister Nitin Gadkari has ordered to make amendment in the schedule for changing the labour to material ratio from the existing 60:40 to 51:49. This will usher in Contractor Raj, which was so far restricted to the real estate sector, anticipated Roy. Despite MGNREGA being demand driven, there has been rationing of funds. By restricting the Act to 1/3rd of the blocks, the Govt. is trying to convert the MGNREGA into a scheme. She argued that poverty cannot be defined geographically. Even in rich cities and locations, there exists poverty and unemployment. A lot many myths have been created to tarnish the Act. It is purely a myth that assets have not been created under the MGNREGA.

Aruna Roy argued that both unemployment and underemployment can be solved via MGNREGA. MGNREGA provided employment to women, SCs and STs. Water bodies could be conserved due to the Act, which helped farming in villages. Financial inclusion of women has happened under the programme since bank accounts could be opened in their names. Almost two-third of the MGNREGA work is related to agriculture.

Retired professor of JNU Prabhat Patnaik informed that prior to the MGNREGA, India had food-for-work programme. However, the MGNREGA is different from the former since it is demand driven and also a rights-based programme. One is supposed to receive unemployment compensation if demand for employment is not met. The primary aim of the MGNREGA is to provide employment and not asset creation. Currently the Act is under danger from the Executive. If an amendment is made in the schedule of MGNREGA to change the labour to material ratio, then it will no longer remain a rights-based programme. The recent statement by the Rajasthan Chief Minister to convert the MGNREGA into a food-for-work programme indicates the Act is on the verge of being diluted.

The wages provided to the labourers employed under the MGNREGA generated demand in the village economy via the 'multiplier-effect'. It increased purchasing power of the rural masses during global financial crisis, argued Patnaik. Ideally Rs. 60,000 crore to Rs. 65,000 crore should be allocated annually under the MGNREGA to keep the real allocation constant in the face of inflation. However, presently the programme gets an allocation, which is nearly half of it.

Prof. Patnaik clarified that it is not due to fund crunch that funding to the MGNREGA has been squeezed. The Government has given huge tax concessions to the corporate rich in successive budgets. The Government has enormous amount of foodgrain stock, which is being exported. There is unutilized capacity in the industry. All these indicate that India is a demand constrained economy and, therefore, MGNREGA should not be rolled back.

The Government is presently pressuring the people to reduce demand for employment under the MGNREGA by altogether changing the Act. Commenting on restricting the MGNREGA to 1/3rd of the blocks, Patnaik argued that poor in rich localities cannot be discriminated against poor in backward localities.

Former Planning Commission member and JNU Professor Abhijit Sen said that he is concerned about the recent developments for a number of reasons—a. MGNREGA is an Act and not a scheme. It is a right which is guaranteed by the Act. Therefore, changes should be made in the legislation first, and the Executive has no right to change it; b. The MGNREGA has faced stiff opposition even during the UPA-2. In many villages, farmers opposed MGNREGA. Wages given to labourers under the MGNREGA strengthened their bargaining power vis-a-vis the landowners and farmers. MGNREGA has changed the political fabric in the rural areas. Therefore, being a political issue, the Executive has no right to change it; c. The MGNREGA has been underestimated. Those who are against it say that it has increased the cost of production. Some of it is exaggeration. For example, it is the growing construction sector in Bihar that absorbed labourers in that state, and not the MGNREGA, due to which agriculture in Punjab suffered.

Abhijit Sen informed that there used to be a number of employment schemes running in the country prior to the MGNREGA. Expenditure on the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (JRY) as a proportion of GDP prior to 2004 had been higher as compared to the expenditure made on the MGNREGA (as % of GDP). Many of the sample surveys done earlier did not show significant increase in employment under the JRY. However, NSS surveys surely indicate rise in employment under MGNREGA. Employment generation has been the main objective of the MGNREGA and not asset creation. However, there is evidence that more assets are being created under the programme lately. At the time when Prof. Sen left Planning Commission, the preliminary findings of the programme evaluation of asset creation under MGNREGA revealed more assets are being created under the Act. He said that amendments to the MGNREGA is a political matter and, therefore, it cannot be left to the Executive.

Abhijit Sen clarified that the proposed changes in the schedule of MGNREGA is different from the changes in guidelines that was recommended by Dr. Mihir Shah of Planning Commission earlier. He said that MGNREGA 2.0 involved an open and transparent consultation process. It gave more powers to the panchayats in opting the type of work required in their respective villages.

Noted lawyer and Additional Solicitor General of India Indira Jaising informed that various senior bureaucrats have agreed that the MGNREGA contributed to the welfare of the poor. Corruption cases in MGNREGA in states of Bihar and Odisha have taken matters to the court. There is clarity in the Act on what proportion of funds should come from the Centre and the state/s. It is widely documented that the MGNREGA enforces the Directive Principles of State Policy embodied in article 39 and 41.

Norati Devi, sarpanch of Harmada panchayat in Ajmer district of Rajasthan said that the MGNREGA provided livelihood security. The programme improved drinking water facility in her village apart from ensuring food security. She demanded that MGNREGA should not be rolled back since many people will become unemployed and fall into poverty in the absence of this Act.

For more information, please check the links below:

Government rolling back rural job scheme, say activists, IANS, The Business Standard, 8 October, 2014,

Do not dilute MGNREGA, eminent citizens ask government, Business Standard, 8 October, 2014,

Human rights groups criticise govt, PTI/ Business Standard, 8 October, 2014,

Proposed changes to rural job scheme will hit 5 cr households, say activists, The Hindu Business Line, 8 October, 2014,
* While utmost care has been taken in good faith to summarize the main speakers’ views, these may not be exact quotes. Please check with the speakers for verbatim quotes. Advance apologies for any factual error.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Rising inequality can hurt peace and justice, says UNDP report

Just when the entire world has started clamouring about the new book on inequality by French economist Thomas Piketty, it becomes essential to mention a UNDP report on the same subject that was released in early 2014. Entitled: Humanity divided: Confronting inequality in Developing Countries, the UNDP report claims that the richest one percent of the world population owns about 40 percent of the world's assets, while the bottom half owns no more than one percent. It warns that inequality could shake the foundations of development, and social and domestic peace. Among other things, the social impacts of inequality include unemployment, violence, crime, humiliation, and deterioration of human capital and social exclusion, informs the report. (Please see the links below).

The report has stated that in populous countries like India and China, household income inequality is rising. The Gini index of primary income distribution in India rose from 33.0 in early 1990s to 35.7 in late 2000s. Similarly, Gini index of secondary income distribution rose from 31.4 in early 1990s to 34.0 in late 2000s*. (Please see the table 1 below for details).

Using the data provided by Abhijit Banerjee and Thomas Piketty (2010) in a study, the UNDP report tells that the richest 1 percent's income share witnessed a rise between 1990 and 1999 in India (see box 3.2, page 86 of the original report).

The role of Indian government in promoting “faster, sustainable and more inclusive growth” relying on decent employment during the 12th Five Year Plan has been stated in the report. It is said that India has started experimenting with small and medium enterprise (SMEs) financing through central bank mechanisms along with special public funds to stimulate and guarantee bank loans linked to their business plans. Since land reforms are problematic, the report emphasizes on improved access to infrastructure, including physical and social infrastructure so as to improve agricultural productivity. The report observes the positive impacts of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) such as increasing rural wages, reducing distress migration, improving infrastructure, reducing unemployment and underemployment, encouraging agricultural productivity and reducing malnutrition.

Discussing the merits and demerits associated with various types of subsidies, the report says that total expense on food subsidies in India constituted US$12.4 billion, or 1 percent of the GDP as compared to 3 percent directed to education in 2009 (Jha et al., 2011). On gender equality, the report informs that the reform of inheritance laws in India, which granted women the right to inherit or own land or capital property through amendments to the Hindu Succession Act, increased women’s land inheritance, but also improved their control over economic resources in the household and their intra-household bargaining power. Quotas as part of affirmative action policies to promote the employment of scheduled castes and tribes in the public sector is also discussed in the report.

According to the UNDP report, a significant majority of households in developing countries – more than three-quarter of entire humanity – are living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s. Although redistribution remains crucial to reducing inequality, the report calls for a shift towards a more inclusive pattern of growth, one that raises the incomes of poor and low-income households faster than average in order to sustainably reduce inequality, key to the post-2015 development agenda.

The report has identified the main drivers of inequality, namely—a. Inadequately regulated financial integration and trade liberalization processes, whose benefits have been distributed very unequally across and within countries; b. Domestic policy choices, such as interventions that weakened labour market institutions or resulted in a downsizing of public investments in critical sectors like health, education and social protection; c. Various economic, social and cultural barriers hindering the political participation of various segments of the population; and d. Discriminatory attitudes and policies that are marginalizing people on the basis of gender or other cultural constructs such as ethnicity or religious affiliation drive many intergroup inequalities.

Incidentally, the world owes a lot to the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Christine Lagarde who conjured up everyone's interest on inequality. While delivering the Richard Dimbleby Lecture in London on 3rd February this year, she paid special attention to inequality as a leading cause for global instability. (Please see the link of her lecture below).

The key messages of the UNDP report entitled: Humanity divided: Confronting inequality in Developing Countries (January, 2014) are as follows:

  • On average—and taking into account population size—income inequality increased by 11 percent in developing countries between 1990 and 2010.
  • A significant majority of households in developing countries—more than 75 percent of the population—are living today in societies where income is more unequally distributed than it was in the 1990s.
  • Evidence shows that, beyond a certain threshold, inequality harms growth and poverty reduction, the quality of relations in the public and political spheres of life and individuals’ sense of fulfilment and self-worth.
  • There is nothing inevitable about growing income inequality; several countries managed to contain or reduce income inequality while achieving strong growth performance.
  • Evidence shows that greater income inequality between households is systematically associated with greater inequality in non-income outcomes.
  • Inequality cannot be effectively confronted unless the inextricable links between inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunities are taken into account.
  • In a global survey conducted in preparation for this report, policy makers from around the world acknowledged that inequality in their countries is generally high and potentially a threat to long-term social and economic development.
  • Redistribution remains very important to inequality reduction; however, a shift is needed towards more inclusive growth patterns in order to sustainably reduce inequality.
  • Reducing inequality requires addressing inequality-reproducing cultural norms and strengthening the political agency of disadvantaged groups.
  • Evidence from developing countries shows that children in the lowest wealth quintile are still up to three times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than children in the richest quintiles.
  • Social protection has been significantly extended globally, yet persons with disabilities are up to five times more likely than average to incur catastrophic health expenditures.
  • Despite overall declines in maternal mortality in the majority of developing countries, women in rural areas are still up to three times more likely to die while giving birth than women living in urban centers.
  • Besides improving the progressivity of taxes, it is important to expand the tax base in developing countries as a way to mobilize additional resources.


* The analysis of the trends in income inequality has been focused on the distribution of income between households in an economy. One can interpret household income distribution in three ways (van der Hoeven, 2011):

a. Primary income distribution: the distribution of household incomes consisting of the (sometimes cumulated) different factor incomes in each household before taxes and subsidies as determined by markets and market institutions
b. Secondary income distribution: the distribution of household incomes after deduction of taxes and inclusion of transfer payments (i.e., as determined by fiscal policies)
c. Tertiary income distribution: the distribution of household incomes when imputed benefits from public expenditure are added to household income after taxes and subsidies. This interpretation of household income is particularly relevant for developing, emerging and developed countries, as different government services are often provided for free or below market prices.

** Distribution of income across households or individuals in an economy is usually measured using the Gini Index of inequality, which varies between zero and 100, with zero reflecting complete equality and 100 indicating absolute inequality.


Humanity divided: Confronting inequality in Developing Countries (January, 2014), UNDP

Warning of 'humanity divided,' UN urges job creation, inclusive growth strategies, The United Nations, 29 January, 2014,

Capital in the 21st century -Thomas Piketty,

Banerjee, A. and T. Piketty (2010). “Top Indian Incomes 1922-2000”, in Atkinson, A. B. and T. Piketty (eds), Top Incomes: A Global Perspective, Oxford University Press, chapter 1,;jsessionid=C8BCCC3A901A212BDC55B5EAD4FFF2CF?cc=in&lang=en&

Jha, R., R. Gaiha, M. K. Pandey and N. Kaicker (2011). “Food Subsidy, Income Transfer and the Poor: A Comparative Analysis of the Public Distribution System in India’s States”, ASARC Working Paper 2011/16. Canberra: Australia South Asia Research Centre.

A New Multilateralism for the 21st Century: the Richard Dimbleby Lecture By Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, International Monetary Fund, London, February 3, 2014,

Why We’re in a New Gilded Age-Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 8 May, 2014,

The Taxation of Wealth-Prabhat Patnaik, People's Democracy, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 18, May 04, 2014 ,

The 1 Percent’s Problem by Joseph Stiglitz, May 31, 2012, Vanity Fair,



Thursday, March 13, 2014

People’s perception about Delhi’s public transport

I live in a country where leaders and elderly men believe that eating of chowmein prompt young men to rape our sisters and daughters. In a nation whose female labour force participation rate has been falling over the last ten years, women do not feel safe while traveling to their workplaces even in a city like Delhi.

The gruesome gang rape of Nirbhaya inside a bus in Delhi on 16 December, 2012 has brought the public transport system under microscope. The results of a perception survey done for Delhi Human Development Report 2013 reveals that only a small fraction of the respondents (both male and female) thought that public transport was very secure (0.4 percent) or secure (12.5 per cent) for women. Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) finds that respondents felt women were the least secure while using public transport and most safe in spaces closer to their homes. Female respondents felt that buses were the worst type of public transport in terms of safety since they were harassed by both the young and old, illiterate and educated men.

Perceptions about the safety of public transport for women decreased with increasing education levels. The illiterate and the less educated respondents perceived public transport to be safer than those who were educated up to the graduate level and above.

The male respondents disliked the relatively long time taken by buses to travel from one destination to another, while the female respondents cited the indecent behaviour of bus drivers, conductors and co-passengers as their reasons for disliking the same.

While men, in general, were appreciative of the transport system in Delhi as a whole, women specifically appreciated the Metro service. Women, on the whole, reported disliking the transport system in Delhi, possibly due to issues of safety and overcrowding, among other reasons. Women claimed that the separate women’s compartment in the Metro was a welcome feature.

Overcrowding, non-availability of direct Metro facilities to various locations, lack of toilets at all the metro stations and expensive fares were reasons whereby the Metro seemed to fall short of people’s expectations. The perception survey finds that the percentage of people using the Metro is still the least among the lowest income groups and increases as one ascends the economic ladder, which is in contrast to DTC buses, for which the usage falls as one climbs up the economic ladder.

Two fifths of respondents felt road conditions are below average in the city of Delhi while a little over a third felt the same to be above average.

A recent survey of 3,400 Delhi women by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry reveals that 43 percent of them are looking for a job out of Delhi. This is because of Delhi's unsafe environment.


Government of Delhi (2013): Delhi Human Development Report 2013,

43% of migrant women want to quit Delhi: Study -Smriti Singh, The Times of India, 13 March, 2014,

Image Courtesy: Millennium Development Goals: India Country Report 2014, MoSPI,

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Discriminatory Indian laws promote gender inequality

During the month of November when a young journalist was allegedly sexually assaulted by the editor of a magazine where she worked (at Thinkfest in Goa), a report on gender prejudice of Indian laws was launched by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in New Delhi. Written from a gender perspective by senior advocate Kirti Singh, the report entitled 'The Law and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check' claims that most Indian laws be it prevention of dowry law, anti sexual assault law or inheritance law, actually go against the interests of women. Some Indian laws instead of curtailing actually perpetuate gender discrimination in the society.

The UNFPA report has reviewed through gender lens laws relating to women including dowry, inheritance, child marriage, sex-selection and sexual assault so as to assess the inherent flaws in them and how they promote gender injustice. It finds that the laws themselves, and their interpretation, non-implementation or absence, may directly or indirectly propagate son preference in the society. Laws such as the Goa Law on Polygamy that permits a second marriage for the husband when there is no son from the first marriage, actually promote gender injustice and son preference. As a result of the prevailing gender discrimination in India, child sex ratio, defined as number of girls for every 1000 boys in the 0-6 age group, has worsened over the decades.

While in some cases laws that promote gender equality are not effectively implemented (such as the PCPNDT Act* and Dowry Prohibition Act) by either the central or state governments, laws are missing in critical areas like honour crimes and marital property rights. A separate law on honour killings is essential to ensure that khap panchayats and families victimizing couples are brought to book. Since there is absence of community of property law in India between a husband and a wife and the non-financial and financial contributions of a woman to a household are not recognized, a standalone comprehensive legislation in this area should be urgently enacted, recommends the present report.

Throwing light on the Sexual Harassment Of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 that came into force in April 2013, the report is critical about a section in the Act, which penalizes ‘malicious’ complaints (made by victim woman to the Internal Complaints Committee or the Local Complaints Committee) and complaints, which the complainant knows are false. As per the anti sexual harassment law, if the complaints made are false then the Internal Complaints Committee or the Local Complaints Committee can recommend to the employer that action be taken against the woman ‘in accordance with... service rules’ or ‘in such manner as may be prescribed’. But the present UNFPA report opines that this goes against the Vishaka judgement, which clearly states that no action should be taken against a woman for making a complaint.

As per the amended rape law, the report clarifies that if a woman remains passive, this alone will not imply consent to the sexual intercourse in question. Marital rape is still not recognised in the law and only sexual assault of girls below the age of 15 years within marriage is considered a crime under the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

* Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 (PCPNDT Act)


The Law and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check -Advocate Kirti Singh, United Nations, November, 2013

New Report Reviews Key Laws on Women and Girls and Their Impact on Son Preference In India, 18 November, 2013,

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013
Some Indian laws reinforce gender inequality, UN study finds -Nita Bhalla, Live Mint, 14 November, 2013,

Study cites Goan law to show tilt to sons-Ananya Sengupta, The Telegraph, 15 November, 2013

Separate law against honour killings sought, The Times of India, 15 November, 2013,

Law often ineffective against gender discrimination: Study, IANS, 14 November, 2013,

It's not only about Tehelka -Kalpana Sharma, The Hoot, 22 November, 2013,

The Limits of Female Agency -Aardra Surendran, Vikalp, December, 2013,

UNFPA report reviews laws on women, impact on son preference, The Business Standard, 14 November, 2013,

Two-thirds of women journalists face intimidation, abuse: Survey-Aarti Dhar, The Hindu, 4 December, 2013,

Friday, November 1, 2013

A roadside story

Way back in 1993, my father bought me a bicycle when I passed the Class X Board exams. It was a gift that I long cherished. Despite initial resistance from my mother, I and my Mathematics tutor could convince that biking in Salt Lake (a township in Kolkata) attracted no danger. In those days there were a few cars seen running on roads. However, empty roads rarely titillated the drivers to gear up for top speed.

Had the year been 2013, my father would never have dared to buy me a bicycle. The reason is simple: A ban on cycling on most streets of Kolkata by the present West Bengal Government. Due to the enormity in rash driving, my mother would not have allowed me the pleasure of ‘magic carpet ride’ either.

Innocence gave way to intelligence in my quest for knowledge as I grew up.  I learnt that bicycle is an election symbol of a political party with whom the Trinamool Congress (TMC) once wanted to work hand-in-glove that did not materialize ultimately. In 2012, the Samajwadi Party (SP) did a U-turn and supported UPA’s candidate Pranab Mukherjee in the presidential elections, thereby leaving the TMC leadership furious. From this incident, some of us may conclude that it could have triggered the TMC-led Government to put a ban on cycling. But the official stance is: Cycling slows down the traffic in Kolkata. And therefore, the ban on wheeling on approximately three dozen streets in 2008 under the Left Front’s rule was further extended to 174 roads under TMC (as reported by The Guardian dated 29 October, 2013).

During my stay in Delhi for more than a decade I could realize that more and more cars are adding up to the traffic every day, thus, polluting the air we inhale. A plain way of measuring this is to put one’s index finger inside the nostrils and pull out the dirt and mucus after coming back from office. I know that some of you may dislike my terrible idea. But believe it or not: the number of registered cars and jeeps in Delhi jumped by 59.8 percent from 14.67 lakhs in 2005-06 to 23.4 lakhs in 2011-12. However, the number of registered buses (including ambulance & other passenger vehicles) in Delhi rose by 47.2 percent from 43500 in 2005-06 to 64033 in 2011-12.

My guess is people are now shifting from hatchbacks to diesel guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs), multi utility vehicles (MUVs) and light utility vehicles (LUVs). If ever you go to South Delhi and Gurgaon, foreign brands are a common sight. Often carrying not more than two passengers at a time, I could reason out why these vehicles are responsible for our high import bills. Such high-end vehicles are low in efficiency in terms of per capita fuel consumption as compared to a bus or an auto, I always felt.  

In Delhi, I find that cycles are used by members of cycling clubs and the laboring masses. Unlike those who live on the fringes of the economy, a handful among the well-to-do sections including the politicians pedal for health reasons. Most city dwellers prefer a motorized vehicle than a bicycle. In the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, the percentage of households having scooter, motor cycle and moped (i.e. 38.9 percent) exceeded the percentage of households having bicycle (i.e. 30.6 percent), as per the Census 2011. Nearly, 20.7 percent of households have car, jeep and van. Underlying these figures is the revelation that residents of Delhi prefer motorized to non-motorized vehicles not just because they are richer than people of other states but because they are afraid to pedal on roads. They are afraid of being mowed down by raging SUVs.


Kolkata cycle ban puts squeeze on health and livelihoods at risk -Annie Gowen, The Guardian, 29 October, 2013,

Delhi Statistical Handbook 2013,