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Bangalore, November 2006

Right to Work and the Rural Employment Guarantee Act

The 1991 reforms resulted in a reduction in public works programs and employment generating activities, rising input costs while the prices and support of the government declined. This affected rural India badly and lead to a falling agricultural production, and thus a reduced per capita availability of food grains, as well as a decrease in purchasing power. Employment in general is a problem as the labour force has grown faster than the growth of employment. In addition, there is a growing discrimination of women in rural labour with lower wager and a faster overall decline in women’s employment. Thus, with high unemployment rates, increased poverty, starvation deaths, and peasant suicides, rural India suffers a severe crisis

Keywords: | | | | Principle of active subsidiarity | | India

Background to the Problem

Over the past decades, the number of malnourished people in India has increased instead of decreasing. Particularly communities in rural areas face a difficult situation, which is aggravated by an environmental crisis resulting from the green revolution. While the green revolution attempted to feed millions of citizens it had grave long-term consequences ; falling water tables, dried up rivers, increased soil erosion, reduced lifespan of dams, which lead to a major crisis of drinking water in many areas.

To improve the situation and move towards sustainable environmental regeneration, a substantial boost in public investment is required since they go beyond the capacities of individual small farmers. Those investments would start of a chain of events.

First of all, to put to use these investments effectively, massive employment programs could be started. This would offer many unskilled people a job paid in grains or cash and thus would help improve their standard of living. Second, public investment in environmental regeneration would improve the environment and water situation while increasing the agricultural productivity of small and marginal farmers.

Possible Scenario That May Pose Solutions

One way to enforce the crucial public investment is to legislate the right to work. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is one attempt in this direction.

The original act was based on the principles of universality and self-selection, which allowed all households to apply and an extension of the Act to the whole of rural India within a five-year period. The NREGA promises to provide legal guarantee for at least one hundred days of employment, to begin with on asset-creating work programs every year at minimum wages.

It was open to adult members of every rural household who would volunteer to do casual manual work. Under the act there should be no gender discrimination in the “provision of employment or the payment of wages”. Every applicant should be offered employment within 15 days of registration. If this were not the case an unemployment allowance would be paid.

Limitations to This Scenario

The reality of the NREG bill of 2004 shows a slightly different picture: every rural household became every poor rural household whereas poor was defined as households below the poverty line. Yet, this identification leaves out millions of the near poor and those that have only fragile and precarious livelihoods. In addition, the new bill does not guarantee a time-bound extension to the whole of rural Indian but, instead, allows the government to withdraw it at any time while the bill can also be restricted to certain areas. Furthermore, wages are not linked to any norms and seem to be arbitrary, without any fixed minimum common figure. Also, the way “work” has been defined it limits the scope of employment guarantee. Finally, the exclusion of women is not adequately addressed.

Consequently, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill of 2004 tabled in the Parliament will not be able to fulfill the purpose of the original draft without the benevolence of the state. However, the intention of creating an NREG was to empower disadvantaged rural households and improve the living standards of hundreds of million people without any restriction. While this is a noble attempt, the limitations of the actual bill suggest that the reality will be different.

India, the country with the second largest population, faces severe difficulties with a labour force growing faster then employment opportunities. This results in a circle of problems starting with high unemployment rates, growing discrimination of women, and increased poverty and can lead to starvation death and peasant suicides. Particularly households in rural areas are affected by these dramatic outcomes. The national employment guarantee act addresses this crisis with an option that could be beneficial for millions. The bill that passed the Indian parliament, however, varies from the original proposal and thus puts limitations on the number of, and ways, people can benefit from it.

Advocacy and Communication Strategies

To address the changes in the current proposal of the national employment guarantee scheme from the original act and including the resulting implications, Pipal Tree will publicize articles in newspapers and journals. It will also provide extensive documentation and communication on background information and future changes, as well as the status of implementation. To enhance communication and start a dialogue among key actors, Pipal Tree will use a list-serve to reach its network partners and key actors.

As the difference between the original and current proposal will have a great impact on millions of people it is important to find a consensus that leads to maximal benefits for the poor. Pipal Tree will play a mediator and help find such a consensus through lobbying with government official, business representatives, NGOs, and pressure groups.


Our conference will set off discussions and an ongoing dialogue among key actors and those interested in the national rural employment guarantee act and its implementation. These workshops and discussion will focus on the problems arising from the modified proposal and the resulting impact on the rural population. The aim is to find possible solutions to allow a majority of the poor to benefit from the NREGA.

During our conference we will call key civil society leaders, trade unionists, and others, to dialogue on this issue.

Steps to be taken to arrive at workable solutions

  • 1) Build coalitions of NGO’s, intellectuals, media and other civil society leaders that can suggest sustainable development plans in the districts selected. Prevent the programme from degenerating into an unplanned relief effort.

  • 2) Increase media coverage and ensure coverage to those people who will be effected

  • 3) Form new pressure groups

  • 4) Increase cooperation between NGOs, people’s organization, and pressure groups working towards the implementation of the original act

  • 5) Monitor the government’s actions towards it’s implementation and try to enforce further actions, especially at the 150 districts where is being implement, check corruption (such as bogus muster rolls), and so on

Key Actors

Among key actors who deal with the NREGA are :

  • Government officials, political leaders, policymakers ;

  • NGOs promoting employment and income generating activities especially in the unorganised sector, womens’ empowerment, and rural development ;

  • Journalists and mediapersons ;

  • Researchers and workers’ rights activists ;

  • Pressure Groups and Social Movements ;

  • Business and Corporate Houses ;

  • Pressure groups and social movements supporting the original NREGA.