Data on the growing deprivation of sections of people has started resurfacing with investigations into implementation of Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (NREGS) across the country since 2008. Concomitantly, there has been publication of a series of reports by in the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS). This volume under review takes up security schemes to provide a holistic view on working and non-working poor’s living condition.
Certain theoretical conclusions with which the book progresses—which is the result of a collaborative ‘knowledge project’ —makes it an interesting read. It takes as its point of departure the duality between formal and informal sector rather than simple availability of jobs as the important determinant in deciding on living condition of working poor. This, in effect emphasizes the aspect of NCEUS’s report that besides rights, the protective securities from ‘deficiency’ and ‘adversity’ are also critical for the working poor. Second, while noting the disconnect between economics of inclusion and politics of inclusion, a very important assumption with which the introduction of the book situates all other essays is the absence of capital as a stakeholder in the informal economy in India. The third point is regarding methodology. The book, in investigating six States in India does not really try to come up with a cohesive, general account on social security. Rather the volume aims to highlight diversity in terms of successes and failures of such social security schemes. And this is done by adopting a mixed methodology of quantitative and qualitative research and as well as macro and micro level analysis. This aspect of the book may actually appear very refreshing for many readers with ‘dry’ data interjected with interesting narratives from case studies.
The first section of the book, titled Overview Papers, has two papers by K.P. Kannan and Varinder Jain. These papers provide an analysis of performance of NREGS and Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) on a national level. In the first paper on NREGS, the authors attempt to construct a national profile of NREGS in the last five years by contrasting and comparing macro-level data from government sources with the micro-level State-wise analysis of NREGS. Their findings include more political and administrative commitment in terms of providing work, skill-building, payment of wages, and work-days on the one hand; and on the other converging NREGS activity with rural capital formation, pushing NREGS’ positive externalities to strengthen the institutional basis of rural development. In the second essay the authors take up RSBY which came into existence in 2008 as an extension of the Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Bill. Despite noting the long road that needed to be travelled due to political unwillingness and inaction, the authors also highlight the fact that many State governments were actually happy to have a scheme like RSBY keeping an eye on electoral gain. It is pointed out that regional variations on RSBY implementation can be thought of as two models: inclusive models adopted in States like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh where a large section of poor is being included by extending the national level scheme; and second limited inclusive model. After this macro-level analysis, a field-based analysis is taken up in the essay, findings of which concur with the conclusions reached in the essays to follow in the volume in case of particular States.
The subsequent essays, chiefly focusing on NREGS and health related security schemes, investigate situations in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Gujarat, Odisha and Punjab respectively. Two essays in Section II by D. Narashima Reddy and G. Vijay investigate NREGS and Rajiv Aarogyasri Community Health Insurance Scheme (RAS) in Andhra Pradesh. Reddy’s study is based on quantitative and qualitative studies of two villages in Medak district of AP. With obvious notes on area of improvement, the essay highlights the relative success of NREGS in terms of raising wages, improving food availability, lessening of seasonal migrations etc., coupled with more active social audit system by the State and its active promotion of work in SC/ST and then in small-marginal farmers’ land. In terms of the performance of RAS, the findings of Vijay are similar to Reddy’s. With 85% coverage of the State population, the author concludes affirmatively on the performance of the State. Launched even before RSBY, AP government has continued with RAS as a variation of RSBY since 2008. Initiated in 2007, in the wake of falling spending on health, poor accessibility and growing number of farmers’ suicides, the scheme is unique in so long as it is funded by the State and not dependent on beneficiaries’ contribution. However the study, besides the scheme’s laudable success, also points out the risk of growing apathy from big players as long as private share in the health sector continues to grow; the need to build basic facilities in government hospitals and to correct the entire chain of health care system; to include out-patient facilities in order to truly secure health condition of the working poor etc.
Kerala is yet another success story as compared to many other States in India in terms of ensuring social security benefits for the poor. As noted in the essay by T.P. Kunhi-kannan and K.P. Aravindan Kerala has managed to distribute the maximum number of cards under RSBY. The study covering 932 households (530 from Cheruvannur-Nallam and 402 Naduvannur) also registers this success story quite emphatically. A majority of respondents (58%) in the survey emphasized the usefulness of these benefits, with RSBY meeting the issue of increasing health expenditure to some satisfaction of the people. The essay in the end notes some steps towards further improvement with periodic updating of BPL card, revision of package rates of hospitals etc. What are the factors behind such good performance of social security measures in Kerala? The article by K.P. Kannan and N. Jagajeevan, throws some light on the issue. Their contention is that behind this achievement lies a successful model whereby beneficiaries are not passive recipients but active agents. Based on a case study of the Kudumbasree, a powerful women’s collective coming from poorer households working in Aryanad panchayat, the essay appreciates that conducive larger socio-economic situation always facilitates such pro-poor scheme. But it could only be successfully mobilized when collectives such as Kudumbasree continue to mobilize labour within the scope of public employment. Coupled with this, the favourable transformation within the larger civil society in Kerala has also helped in the growth of such grassroot agency. But the essay, at the same time, cautions its readers that in terms of SC/ST population in Kerala, much is still to be done.
The study by Darshini Mahadevia on the social security for unorganized workers in Ahmadabad, Gujarat reaches a similar conclusion as that of Kannan and Jagajeevan. She points out sheer apathy on the part of government and structural flaws in policy framework as responsible for poor performance on human development and social securitization. However, the more interesting observation in her essay pertains to the difficult status of the migrant workforce as citizens in the unorganized sector. Thereby, like Kannan and Jagajeevan, she also tries to highlight the issue of rights and agency in a State where a particular development growth mantra takes hold at the expense of the poor. The study of Satyakam Joshi, in a radically different context of Dangs districts, Gujarat, populated by tribal communities, does not register any change in the performance-record of the Gujarat State Government. The NREGS scheme has been mired in corruption. The same story of corruption has been there in case of RSBY with the problem of fake smart cards. However with 75% coverage of population in BPL in Dangs, the performance on paper was better than NREGS. In fact in 2010-11, the author notes that there seems to be satisfactory progress under the scheme with the issue of fake card sternly handled. In case of the pension scheme, there is rise in the numbers covered under such schemes; but inaction, poor information and corruption also ensure that a large portion remains outside its benefits.
Rathi Kanta Kumbhar finds himself in a contrasting situation to that of his counterparts in Kerala, while studying the Sason Panchayat in Sambalpur district Odisha. Collating macro level data and field-study, his study on the implementation of NREGA connects the passive civil society, lack of grass root mobilization with obvious problem of non-issuance of card, delayed payment, lack of initiatives from the beneficiaries in demanding jobs etc. However, in this study one interesting observation comes up regarding prevailing feudal social relations in rural Odisha, blocking off the poorer sections of the society when it comes to availing such rights and securities. Amarendra Das’s essay on the implementation of RSBY has similar conclusions. RSBY in a backward State like Odisha has an enormous potential to make the living conditions of the poor better. People who got access have reported positively about the scheme and used it for surgical and non-surgical purposes. But with factors like limited number of hospitals, RSBY currently available in only six districts and a dated BPL list from 1997, in reality means that such positive effect has reached only a miniscule number in Odisha.
The last section covering Punjab has two essays, both contributed by Sucha Singh Gill, Sukhwinder Singh and Jaswinder Singh Brar. The first essay on the implementation of NREGA in a prosperous State like Punjab based on primary investigation in two districts—Patiala and Sangrur—demonstrates that except in the case of old age pension schemes and subsidized food schemes, in which political commitment is strong, the performance of NREGS is below par. But an interesting development in the State is the organizational effort on the part of Left leaning individuals to bring together NREGS workers under a union. Extending the conclusion of this study the next essay takes up a detailed study of various social security schemes including RSBY. Again except the two schemes mentioned above, others have performed below expectation. Trying to find answers to such a failure, the authors point towards factors such as weakening of the Left movement, electoral politics between ruling parties, political attitude of the State towards national level schemes alongside more ubiquitous factors such as bureaucratic apathy, inaction and socio-economic relations tilted against the working poor.
The article by Jan Breman on four villages of Gujarat—Bardoligam, Chikhligam, Gandevigam and Atulgam—his site of fieldwork for the past half century, is a long anthropological narrative on condition of non-working poor in these villages, their handicaps in facing the State administration, administration’s own apathy, and a failure of a system in delivering security for the destitute. What this article does is to effectively show a focus-area that policy research in India needs to explore. There is an immediate need to adopt a strategy of innovative methodology and approaches in studying policy implementation. Breman’s article is a good example to show that the immediate need is to create a cross-disciplinary endevour. The book raises some common issues like grass root mobilization, local power structure, labour organization and the issue of capital. A volume such as this should take up focused economic or sociological investigation on these issues, alongside drawing performance chart of implementation of various schemes. The introduction does mention there was an idea to incorporate such type of essays on informal economy, legal status of labour in India etc.; but it could not be accommodated. Essays with such specific orientations have been sorely missed personally, and I believe readers would too.
Anubhav Sengupta is currently pursuing PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.