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NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to NRSDA (National Rural Sustainable Development Act)

Sunny and Meeta are a couple working towards providing rural communities with the means of a sustained livelihood. Sunny has worked with NGO's and projects involved in afforestation, drought relief, craft development and community participation in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He worked for a year in Haryana coordinating a rural centre for organic farming, informal learning, raising women awareness while editing and writing booklets and magazines which tried to evolve practical programmes stemming from ecological indigenous visions.

Before striking out with her partner Sunny, Meeta worked with Dastkar for 4 years organising crafts groups and establishing Crafts Bazaars in different cities. For the past 12 years Sunny and Meeta have been developing ranges of natural dyes and block prints on tussar, cotton, silk, jute with an artisan family in Rajasthan. Simultaneously they have been working with artisan families making artificial jewelry out of threads and with lacquer workers. They consult for craft agencies and groups and develop craft merchandising avenues.

October - November 2009, Craft Revival Trust
What is employment?
Is it only unskilled daily labour like drought relief programs, building roads and earthen dams - that flow away every year or digging holes to plant trees that die in percentage of the high eighties. 22 years ago as a part of a volunteer program distributing food aid and simultaneously campaigning for afforestation on community lands in rural Udaipur district of Rajasthan, I as a urban metro youngster experienced the caste system and the culture of corruption the state had ingrained in every individual.This was before the much reviled LPG age (Liberalisation - Privatisation- Globalisation). The upper castes were not easy with walling/enclosing public land to keep away sheep/goat/cow herds as that would stop their slow ingress into "public" land belonging to the panchayat or state forest preserves into their private domain. And the contractor who was carrying on public works for small dam building or digging holes for tree planting, besides keeping 15 people for every 20 listed, also used much less cement . When I asked the local villagers that why don't they protest against shoddy work, they said that it's in our interest to build a dam that flows away in the first rain, so every year we get work! So we had a whole culture of subsidy that made everyone happy. .

No one denies that in the last 20 years there have been umpteen successes like Ralegaon Siddi, Tarun Bharat Sangh, Timbaktu, and many others where local communities have regained independence and sustainability .but most of these have had strong NGO's or leadership. They have managed to leverage local, national and international funds, skills, talents and cooperation. How does one "replicate" this across geographies, differing caste and landholding systems. NREGA is a dream act based on very successful local movements and programs tried in some states and regions. But NREGA is about 100 days of unskilled labour from landless workers and marginal farmers (below one hectare/2.5 acres). As Mihir Shah said in a talk at the India International Centre that marginal and small farmers need support to create bunds/watershed collection earthworks in their own lands, so private work on private land should be included in NREGA. Firstly it's a great idea, and though Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy critique the recent 5 acre limit saying that it takes away funds from the seriously compromised landless, they don't realise that acreage is meaningless in drought conditions. .Most suicides are not by agricultural labour but by small and marginal farmers who have collateral to take loans. What is the meaningful employment you will provide in rural India unless there is a strong movement to build rural infrastructure, farming, poultry, dairy and small industry and handloom and handicrafts. This insistence at only looking at labour without ever looking at a long term plan to create a rural India which will forever not need handouts is a very state welfarist way of looking at systems which need to be actually independent of the governing big state and big private manipulators. There is no economic, ecological sustainability built into the model. Culturally and civilisationally it will create an endless dependence on the babu and the neta (as well as the activist).This is not the dream Gandhi had nor is it about dignity of being. .

We instead should be asking for a plan where rural entrepreneurs are supported, and I really mean the word, because farming is the most risky occupation with no windfall returns. Great crop low prices, no crop no prices, low crop great prices for middlemen..India has more than 80 million landholdings, more than 20 million retailers and probably 100 million hawkers, service providers like barbers and repairmen, and 20 million artisans. Our unit of organisation is tiny; we even have more companies listed on the BSE than NYSE. We are a country of micro entrepreneurs, self employed people. .

Activists trained under Marxist thought will term it petty bourgeoisie or kulak, and that understanding of how India works will always elude the proletariat organiser and has continued to defy the Maoist revolutionary. The Gandhian has not recovered from the shock given by Nehruvian Socialism. In a really India sensitive plan we would have along with NREGA employee cards, NRSDA employer cards. Some part of the payment will be given by employer or self paid to himself. Imagine a weaver, he can subsidise his cheap towels by the 50 rupees he gets from the state and rest through his production. Similarly farmers who own upto a certain acres of land can be allowed a certain number of subsidised labour to work on his land, so he pays the wages partly. For community land projects the state can continue to pay in full. This way the shortage of agriculture labour during sowing and cutting seasons can be avoided by farmers who will not pay the full wage. .

In my experience of rural India in the last 20 years, I realise that not more than 50% are directly dependent on land or agriculture in many area. .They provide a skilled service of repairing motors or tractors and vehicles, plumbing, electricians, carpenters, metalworkers or small retailers or halwais and chaiwallahs. They all will do better if we create a system of more income for all of rural India. .

With piped water in many villages, we need an efficient water treatment system. With plastic and sachets we now have plastic waste outside every village. We need to think now of waste disposal and rural infrastructure maintenance. Its time we thought of how power is shared with not just the local bureaucracy but local political elite. Just like in big cities we have little idea of how funds are spent, but still big media is there to complain, but in rural India very few take on the sarpanch. So how can just the sarpanch be responsible for all funds and employment delivery, its like making a local czar or mafia. Like SHG's (Self Help Group's) were created for saving, one needs to support local SEG's (Self Employment Group's) who can take on projects and can be rated on delivery and efficiency. They can be Dalit majority or OBC majority; it's like creating a cooperative that does service delivery- wether of tree planting or bund making. It will train people at micro level to make small organisations for doing public projects. We have failed miserably to create skilled labour coops in cities that can take and manage building contracts. Such coops exist in USA too. .

I am proposing a skilling and upgrading of millions of unskilled, unorganised Indians through NRSDA (National Rural Sustainable Development Act), in creating a network of employers, if the Public Sector wants to join in, by using these networks, more the merrier. .

Let's build on how Indians work and organise, not how we have thought till now that they ought to work and organise.



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