A new set of government figures corroborates what many of us had known all along, but probably feared to admit: the unbridled growth rate of the Indian economy has failed to transform the lives of the majority. The first study on informal and unorganised employment in India, compiled by the government-mandated National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), reveals that a staggering 394.9 million or 86 per cent of the country’s total workforce toil in this sector without any social security net. And, nearly 80 per cent of these workers live on less than Rs 20 per day or Rs 600 per month. These people, as the panel’s chairman Arjun Sengupta rightly says, are the “real poor and vulnerable” with few livelihood options” and this category consists of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes and Muslims. The report adds that while the number of those who are below the official poverty line have come down in recent decades, the number of those in this broader segment of poor and vulnerable have steadily gone up.
The results of the study do not augur well for a nation that is keen to shed its ‘developing country’ tag. It also shows that our service sector-driven economic growth is not broad-based and has not created employment opportunities for the marginalised. Such widespread discontent, if not tackled now, will only strengthen anti-State movements and increase discontent. And, if it is not the bullet, it will be the ballot, which will bring down governments as the anti-incumbency wave in the recent assembly elections have shown. With the general elections only two years away, the UPA cannot afford to look the other way.
The government must look into the opposition building up against the existing draft of the unorganised sector workers’ Bill, which will be presented in Parliament this Monsoon Session. The NCEUS has recommended bifurcation — one for agricultural and another for non-agricultural — instead of one overarching Bill. Considering that the majority of the unorganised sector workforce is in the agriculture sector and this sector has its own distinct problems, it is important that their needs are seen separately from others. The 13-point action programme charted out by the NCEUS, which includes a national security scheme, minimum conditions of work, special programme for marginal and small farmers, credit for farmers and universalisation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee programme and the removal of the 100-day cap among others, must be adhered to if the government wants to keep its promises made in the National Common Minimum Programme. Otherwise, our 60-year-old experiment with democracy cannot be called an unqualified success.