Under the Modi government there have been unprecedented attacks across the spectrum of social security rights
With a broom in hand, the Narendra Modi government has been quietly carrying out sweeping changes. Away from the photo ops of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, there has been unprecedented watering down of social security rights. Apart from the severe cuts expected in the next budget, three big-ticket assaults are underway—on the rights to land, employment and food.
First on the chopping board was the Land Act. Immediately after the winter session of Parliament, with minimal consultation, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government controversially passed a regressive ordinance. In one stroke, it shredded the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, which had come into force barely a year ago in the wake of farmer agitations. To suit corporate lobbies, the so-called consent clause was dramatically diluted, compulsory social impact assessments watered down and land acquisitions permitted for private schools, private hospitals and even defence manufacture.
Secondly, on the food security front, the government has expediently resorted to foot-dragging. The deadline for the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) has been illegally extended twice, literally on the backs of the hungry. To top this, recently, the Shantha Kumar high level committee overstepped its mandate to openly recommend that this landmark legislation be watered down to reduce the coverage from 67% of India’s population to 40%.
The report grossly overestimates the leakages in the public distribution system. Startlingly, the chair of the committee has also divulged to the media that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power with the manifesto promise of universal food security, had all along been opposed to the law and had hypocritically postured otherwise simply to avoid losing votes in the elections.
Similarly, plans were initially afoot to dismember the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 2009—a vital lifeline for more than 4.5 crore households each year. While the new rural development minister has momentarily shelved these downscaling attempts, the central government continues to undermine the law surreptitiously. There has been explicit capping and rationing of funds released to the states for this demand-based law. As a result, 72% of the wages disbursed in 2014 were delayed beyond the stipulated 15 days. Impoverished workers who often lead a hand-to-mouth existence can scarce afford to wait. Poor states such as Bihar have suffered the most with a 44% decline in NREGA employment provided last year.
This propels a vicious cycle of further fund cuts. But this slashing of social sector budgets flies in the face of economic wisdom. Chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian has mooted that public spending needs to be increased to overcome the slowdown. India is also the world leader in social under-spending despite having the world’s largest population of undernourished, illiterate and landless citizens.
Even the International Monetary Fund in a recent paper has conceded that reducing inequalities through redistribution leads to faster and more durable growth. And the scale of India’s inequality is abominable. Apart from generations stymied by the caste system, the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2014 shows that the richest 1% of Indians own an eye-popping 49% of the country’s wealth and the entire bottom half has to make do with a measly 5%. Yet, under the Make in India corporate crusade, Rs.800 crore is allotted for defence expenditure, but the Rs.330 crore NREGA that employs one-third of rural India is reduced to a trickle.
Now, 33 crore Indians could be further denied subsidized foodgrains if the Food Act is axed. All eyes are, therefore, on the budget session of Parliament. The Land Ordinance will be tabled with the only meaningful opposition in the Rajya Sabha. The budget will also reveal if the government safeguards NREGA and NFSA or squashes them. The real question is—for India’s toiling masses, will the dream of acchhe din stay or be swept away? Swati Narayan is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Comments are welcome at [email protected] Follow