Here, food for work does mean food & work

Indian Express, 2 January 2005

Some pointers from desperately poor Mayurbhanj on the job guarantee debate

Anyone who claims that the proposed employment guarantee scheme will just be Rs 40,000 crore down the drain, every year, should have a word with Aladi Hembram.

The young Santhal woman has been working on building a concrete road in Tentulisole village in Baripada Block since December 27. She does not know how much she will be paid and nor does she care. She knows that whatever she gets will be more than what she and her husband earned from making rope.

The food for work programme being implemented in 150 of the country’s most backward districts is the first phase of the proposed employment guarantee scheme.

Its critics have come up with several strong arguments against the scheme. To start with, they say there is no unemployment among the truly poor. They also say that “leakages” will drain away the funds being allocated for the scheme. They insist that no asset creation takes place as a result of such schemes. Some even argue that it would be better to give the money to the poor as dole.

In Mayurbhanj, where 78 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, such arguments appear flimsy. If employment guarantee is to stretch across the country, some tweaking may be in order. Aladi and her husband, Harachand Hembram, are not jobless since they cannot afford that luxury. But it is clear that their usual work earns them far less than what this programme pays.

Says Harachand: “Each of us makes about three kilos of rope every day. The trader gives us Rs 24 for it. The Sabai costs us Rs 16. Each of us earns about Rs 8 a day.”

That is not enough even for bare survival. The couple and their four children live in a one-room hut and eat 2 kg of rice every day. “With salt,” explains Harachand. They spend Rs 18 on it.

Manual labour is not always an option. Harachand sometimes finds work during harvest times at Rs 30 a day, but he never gets it for more than 20 days a year.

Migration could be another alternative, but it comes with its own roadblocks. Some men from the village go to Jaleshwar for work, loading and unloading trucks but women cannot leave their children behind.

So the food for work programme is a godsend for Aladi and Harachand. The contractor says they will be paid around Rs 50 a day each. This raises an interesting point.

The minimum wage is supposed to serve as a self-selection tool, since only the truly needy will work all day for that money. But here, the minimum wage of Rs 50 a day is actually higher than the market wage of Rs 30 a day. In fact, Harachand and Aladi would be perfectly happy working at Rs 30 each. That is why many contractors only pay workers Rs 30, while pretending they have paid more. It is worth debating whether the stipulated wage for such schemes should be reduced to Rs 30 — the market wage. This will reduce the cost of the scheme and also weed out some corruption.

Otherwise, the leakages will continue and even self-selection may not be limited to the truly poor. The project itself is another story.

The 500-metre concrete road is supposed to cost Rs 2.5 lakh. It will enable villagers to come out of their homes during the rains. At the site, the workers are pestering the contractor to give them work the following day. This is the first time that the village has got such a project. In 2002, the neighbouring village got a new classroom under the programme. The building now houses 78 pupils and three teachers.

The District Rural Development Authority project director D Das says that proposals for the 2004-05 food for work programme have come in. Some 46 projects are feasible. These will involve a total expenditure of Rs 3.13 crore. Out of these, 44 are watershed projects, important for Mayurbhanj which has problems in water retention and soil erosion. Two are for all-weather roads that join villages. Das says that most of the public assets created such schemes are durable. Buildings and water sheds last at least four to five years. The roads, schools and godowns in the nearby villages seem to bear this out. Villagers are happy with their concrete roads and drains that prevent water from entering their houses. Trucks can now enter the village to carry away the local produce.

How difficult will it be to implement the EGA? “As we are not the only source of employment, it is quite feasible to provide 100 days of employment to every poor family,” says Das. Pilferage and corruption will have to be controlled but there is a lot of demand for work among Mayurbhanj’s truly poor. As I left Tentulisole, an old woman asked for Rs 2. But proud and independent Aladi went back to work.

Ila Patnaik

Ila Patnaik