Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Need to Strengthen Panchayati Raj: Insights from Kerala’s Mass Contact Programme

The Kerala CM’s Mass Contact Programme for redressing grievances and rooting out corruption has won international recognition. In this context, the article seeks to evaluate present-day popular models of grievance redressal and explore the role of Panchayati Raj in addressing people’s concerns.

It is only a few months since the Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, won the United Nations’ Public Service Award for ‘Preventing and Combating Corruption in the Public Service’ for his 2011-12 Mass Contact Programme. According to records of the Kerala Government, the CM visited all districts of the state, imbibed lessons by listening to people’s grievances, collected 5.45 lakh petitions and managed to resolve 2.97 lakh of these within a short duration. A similar exercise was carried out in 2013 as well. The UNDP appreciated the initiative, hailing it as exemplary in strengthening democracy. At the same time, one needs to evaluate whether the initiative, while it brings the politicians closer to the voters, is the best way to approach grievance redressal.


Mass Contact Programme 2012: A Broad Picture

Source: Boundless Access: Kerala’s Tryst with Governance, Department of Information & Public Relations, Government of Kerala, March 2012, p.32

Inadequacy of Mass Contact Programme as a Grievance Redressal Mechanism
The table above shows that during the 2011-12 Mass Contact Programme almost 20 per cent of total households - that is one in every five households- in Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Wayanad districts presented their cases before the Chief Minister. If so many people have to depend on certain high-ranking individuals to address their grievances, it makes one ponder upon the extent of progress of democracy in this country. With the ‘Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill, 2011’ still pending in the Parliament, people have no choice but to depend on a few individuals to address their problems. The situation thus throws light on the incapacity of institutions of local self government to address people’s problems.
Need to Strengthen Panchayati Raj Institutions
In the year that lakhs of people participated in the Mass Contact Programme to seek redressal of their grievances, Kerala ranked first in Panchayat Devolution Index (2011-12). In this context, it seems ironic that Rajiv Gandhi envisioned Panchyati Raj as a systemic solution for ‘responsive administration’, replacing managerial solutions like grievance redressal mechanisms. At the beginning of his tenure as the Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was actually in favour of such managerial solutions like the one that the then District Collector of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra had introduced. The Collector had brought in a system, similar to that of the Kerala CM’s, wherein he used to meet the general public in the open under a tree and attempt to provide immediate disposal of their problems. Despite his earlier support to such initiatives, Rajiv Gandhi later accepted in the Parliament that, “At that time...we were looking to a simplification of procedure, grievance- redressal machinery, single-window clearances, computerisation and courtesy as the answers to the problems. As we went along, we discovered that a managerial solution would not do. What was needed was a systemic solution.” Despite it being two decades after  Panchyati Raj was introduced as a systemic solution, it is grievance redressal programmes like the  Oommen Chandy’s that have managed to more effectively address people’s concerns, than institutions of local self government . 
Referring to a case that was brought before him which could actually have been settled at the panchayat level, the Kerala CM said, “How is it that a complaint that could have been tackled by a local governing body reached the chief minister’s hand? ...
Alas, an issue that could have easily been solved didn’t go the way it should have.” If this is the situation in the state with one of the strongest Panchayati Raj systems in the country, it is hard to imagine how deplorable the condition in other states would be. We would not have needed Mass Contact Programmes if there were empowered Panchayati Raj Institutions in place, with adequate powers devolved to them. Therefore, it is high time we ponder over the effectiveness of Panchayati Raj Institutions and take initiatives to empower them so as to facilitate effective delivery of services to the common man.

*This is a revised version of the paper published by the author in eSocial Sciences on 12 July, 2013.

Amrutha Jose Pampackal


Monday, 24 February 2014

Economic Diplomacy in India: Changing Contours in Policy Agenda

The idea of globalisation has radically altered the contours of international economic relationships and economic diplomacy between countries, throwing up new set of challenges and complexities in the spheres of economy, society, politics and culture. With rising global connectivity, dependency and market integration an increasing number of players strive to influence the outcome of economic relationships; and economic diplomacy therefore has assumed immense significance and posed new challenges to diplomats around the world and for the emerging economic power like India. This transformation encompasses an evolution of modus operandi with widening and deepening dimensions of diplomacy. In today’s outward-looking, liberal, macro-economic framework, terms like non-state diplomacy, corporate diplomacy, business diplomacy, NGO diplomacy and track two diplomacy have found their place in the lexicon of economic diplomacy. Economic diplomacy thus has risen to the top of international policy agenda, driven by a mix of political and economic factors. Economic diplomacy includes the promotion of trade and investments, management of aid and other financial flows, tourism promotion and the management of all the regulatory issues that affect a country’s external economic policy; it is handled by the foreign and the economic ministries, and involves contributions by non-state actors.

The policy on India’s economic diplomacy has undergone paradigm shifts from sheer trade diplomacy, which was initiated in the post-independent period to networking in 1980s and then to country promotion and engagement in post-liberalized period. Thus during 1947 to 1984, India witnessed a phenomenon in government-industry relations guided by regulation and control. The year 1985 was the beginning of the U-turn and change, when Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, took a decision that a delegation from Confederation of Indian Industry should accompany him on his first-ever State visit to Soviet Union. Such evolution of relationship between government and industry was a process which really never looked back. Later in the five years of P V Narasimha Rao’s Prime Ministership, CII accompanied him on several occasions, most prominently to Singapore and Vietnam in September 1994, heralding the start of the Look East Policy of India and initiated strategic dialogues or ‘Track II Diplomacy’ mechanisms, which CII continues even today in a much larger scale with many more nations.The year 1991 was crucial, as India’s most aliened post-independent partner, Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated, Indian economic diplomacy made strategic shift with focus on regional partnership. ‘Look East Policy’ was initiated to re-build her relations with fast growing Southeast Asian Nations that was lost during colonial period. India urgently felt the necessity of having new regional and sub-regional partners beyond the SAARC zone. Today, as Look East policy has entered into its third phase, India’s economic diplomacy remained remarkable by becoming a full dialogue partner with ASEAN and by raising trade, tourism and FDI shares significantly. 

Along strategic shifts, the conduct of economic diplomacy within government also has become increasingly dispersed with various departments interfacing with their foreign counterparts and seeking facilitation and support of country’s Missions. Among the non-state actors, multinational corporations are now powerful pressure groups with profound penetration into systems of international economic policy formulation. Apart from this, research institutions, media, environmental groups and other non-governmental organisations also influence the shape of the international economic agenda. Such endeavours have given impressive growth rate, high foreign exchange reserves, increasing exports, rising foreign investment. India has established itself as a major global player in information technology, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, telecom and other areas and negotiated for greater market access for her products under the Doha Development Round in the WTO and pursued strategy of forging trade and commercial alliances in the form of bilateral and regional free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnership agreements. India’s contribution to the world economic and financial architecture through various groupings like the G-20, IBSA, SAARC, World Bank and IMF among others is well known. In this scenario, the role of diplomats in facilitating and supporting the efforts of the business community has become more pronounced.Through dialogue, they need to actively reach out to investors and partner with other organs of the government and the private sector to promote trade, foreign investment and technology flows. There are many instances where the strategic dialogue has been extraordinarily helpful in building and shaping mutual appreciation, especially in Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, Myanmar, China and ASEAN. As the perceptions about Indian policy are very often rooted in history of isolationist, inflexible, low growth, anti-private sector, over-regulated, protectionist, such dialogues enable these old perceptions to be addressed. India’s policy attempt to facilitate economic diplomacy by expanding its role beyond diplomatic services continues towards relevant areas like industry through innovative methods by which people can come on deputation. Indian existing diplomatic service is relatively small in size with 700 IFS cadre officials, which needs to grow given the rising demand of economic diplomacy. On the public diplomacy initiative of the ministry of External Affairs, Mr. Salman Khurshid mentions that, ‘It is essentially an outreach to add to capital diplomatic instruments and diplomatic exercise we take. It is to show what we are doing and making it more effective and add different dimension as greater public participation takes place.’

The journey towards such policy endeavours needs to continue more vigorously amidst contemporary global economic crises, so that India can sustain her domestic economy. Economic diplomacy also needs be a powerful instrument to end age-old conflicts of cross-border terrorism, illegal trade, trafficking, border and political disputes with her neighbouring nations; and should usher hope for a new horizon with regional and sub-regional cooperation. As two of her eastern neighbours Bangladesh and Myanmar are transitioning, it is time for India to explore her economic diplomacy deeply within its Look East Policy frame to outmanoeuvre China, resolve Northeast geopolitical issue, and turn this entire security-sensitive region to a vibrant economic hub with space for people to move without fear and with hope for future. As ‘Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth has no roads to begin with….but when many people pass one way, a road is made.’

Rakhee Bhattacharya

Friday, 21 February 2014

Functioning of Gram Sabhas in India

Photo Credit: Anand District Panchayat
As the foundation of the Panchayati Raj system in India, the Gram Sabhas were envisaged as important institution for deliberation and participation in the decision-making process by the people of rural India. To popularise its role in planning local development initiatives, the central government had declared 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 as Gram Sabha years. However, over the years it has become clear that the Gram Sabhas have failed to include local community voices in their functioning or to even represent them effectively in their decision making. No doubt, if Gram Sabhas functioned in the true spirit of the Constitution, rural India would have a vibrant, transparent and accountable local government to address its immediate needs. Therefore, it is essential to reflect on how effective is the functioning of Gram Sabhas and account for the waning public faith and participation in them.

My field experiences from across Indian villages show that Gram Sabhas are not functioning in accordance with the spirit of the 73rd Amendment Act, 1992. More often than not, their functioning is controlled by the Sarpanch and Secretary and the vested interests they represent rather than the concerns of the common people. Under the law, it is mandatory to give prior notice to members to attend the Gram Sabha meetings. But this procedure is not followed by many Gram Panchayats. In fact, this is a tool in the hands of the dominant who directly or indirectly control the Panchayats and use it to deliberately exclude the common people from participatory political processes and in the process augment their political, economic and social power. It is observed that the meeting dates are fixed by the Central/State governments either to prepare a beneficiary list for various schemes or to disseminate information on new schemes. Those whose names are not in the list do not attend these meetings. In several instances meetings  are fixed during the peak  agricultural  season and as peasant and agricultural labour households cannot afford to lose out on the agricultural wage employment, they tend to forgo Gram Sabha meetings instead.  Meetings are fixed on a popular festival day, making it inconvenient for many to attend.  In Rajasthan, one secretary is generally incharge of three to four Gram Panchayats and it may well be the case that the meetings of all the Panchayats are scheduled for the same day which would make it very difficult for the secretary to be present in all meetings. When this has happened, Gram Sabha meetings have had to be cancelled and rescheduled. But it has been seen that even then the Secretary was not present. Disillusioned, people lose interest in these meetings. It is a common practice that the Sarpanch takes the signature of the people on a blank paper on proceeding details even before the Gram Sabha meeting has been held.  In many Gram Sabhas, candidates who lost the Panchayat election or those from the opposing camp, actively disrupt the meetings. They are often drunk when they come to the meetings and use unpleasant language to abuse the Sarpanch. It is difficult for women to attend these meetings. A common experience of people is that the Sarpanch, once elected, becomes distant from the very people who elected him and moves closer to the Gram Panchayat Secretary and block level officials. He   never makes public the details of the panchayat operations, funds received from the block office etc. 
The traditional land-owning dominant castes are still strong in many villages. These rural elites dominate the discussion on Gram Sabha meetings. The marginalied and landless agricultural labourers who are dependent on dominant castes for wage employment do not oppose them in Gram Sabha meetings. Moreover, low public participation in Gram Sabhas is also due to lack of popular awareness, lack of publicity, interference of local leaders, corruption, conflict among members and the uncooperative attitude of bureaucrats.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) states that, “the Gram Sabhas have been, by and large, given a peripheral role in the Panchayat Acts. Consequently, common people do not find interest in attending its meetings” (B P C Bose and M V S Koteswar: 2004:154). To make Gram Sabha meetings successful, the venue and time may  be so decided that it is to the convenience of the majority.
The emphasis has to be not so much on the number of participants as on the quality of participation. Public faith can be restored only if the Gram Sabha decisions are substantively and efficiently implemented by the higher tier of Panchayats and respective State Governments. The report by Mani Shankar Aiyar also recommended “Genuine PR should be based on participative democracy by not concentrating power on a few representatives and putting in place the ultimate accountability to the people through the Gram Sabha”(Towards Holistic Panchayati Raj: 2013:551).
The decisions of the Gram Sabhas are not binding on higher tiers of Panchayats. Gram Sabhas are spending most of their time in disposing and discussing the agendas of Central/State governments. There is a need to strengthening functions of Gram Sabhas so that they may discuss local issues affecting their day to day life and make local governance more participatory, transparent and people friendly. Gram Sabhas may be given approving and sanctioning powers as well as monitoring functions to allow Panchayats to become vibrant and dynamic institutions. There is need to amend State Acts and make Gram Sabha recommendations binding on Panchayats at higher level.
Ramesh Nayak

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Towards a Socially Grounded Policy Framework: Bridging Everyday Reality and State

Photo Source: Livemint
This is a perspective on the interface between rural labour markets and village based dalit women in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). These insights, drawn from fieldwork conducted in three villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh in the late 2000s, can serve as a basis for designing suitable policy interventions.

A stark feature of the rural labour market is the gender and caste segmentation. Barring isolated exceptions, dalits are concentrated at the bottom of the rural labour hierarchy-in agriculture, brick kilns, construction and distress driven petty self-employment and migrant work. Dalit men reflect high occupational diversification away from agriculture. Accordingly, their income sources and employment relations have been significantly delinked from the village. However, dalit women continue to be held captive in the village economy and society for a variety of reasons-responsibilities of own cultivation, domestic and care economy; a patriarchal value system; increasing role in everyday household reproduction in the face of male outmigration; delivering unfree labour to the local elites on whom they are dependent for employment, credit etc. Moreover, the village economy is largely agrarian in which the least paid and most demeaning types of work are done by women. Therefore, dalit women left behind in the villages are directly and to a greater extent than their male relatives embedded in village based social, economic and political relations of domination and subjugation which are underscored by intersecting caste, class and gender identities.

However, piece-meal transformations are unfolding in villages. In the case of UP, the regional context of BSP has been an enabling factor as it has at least posed a challenge to the traditional purity-pollution discourse, in removing the terror of police from the minds of dalits and ensuring them hearing at the police station, extending scholarships to students etc. Unfortunately however, BSP’s politics of dignity has not managed to structurally combat dalit women’s acceptance of their inferior status, their lack of confidence, their marginalisation from economic and political freedoms enjoyed by dalit men etc. Nonetheless, dalit women are gradually collectivising and protesting against their social and economic exploitation. This is evident in their struggles for better wage relations, in securing PDS ration, in filing complaints against corruption etc. But these struggles do not pose a systemic challenge but seek concessions within the existing order.    

What type of policy insights does such a scenario provide?

One clear lesson is that agriculture continues to be the daily mainstay of dalit women. As such, there is an urgent need to reorient growth strategy such that it does not bypass agriculture and develops synergetic linkages with other sectors to enable greater labour absorption in productive employment opportunities. Policy response can no longer casually treat the gender dimension of differentiation and exploitation and the structural inequalities which are ruthlessly exploited in pursuit of accumulation. Moreover, the idea of hitherto rural/agrarian labour needs to be reconceptualised considering it is simultaneously involved in varied employment relations across geographically dispersed production sites.     

Government interventions such as NREGA and widow/old pension scheme have had positive spin-offs, acting as a crucial buffer against absolute poverty and destitution, but these have also been used as tools by the local elite to build vote banks, labour lobbies or to secure unfree labour. In this region, NREGA has failed to counter the gendered division of labour. Even the petty pension amount is not disbursed regularly without grease money which leaves a very vulnerable section at the mercy of their families for food, health expenses and shreds their dignity. Petty corruption has emerged as a major source of income and accumulation by the local elite. On this front, the Lokpal Bill is definitely a good beginning but again much depends on the implementation and social efforts to enable the use of this legislation.              

The present policy emphasis on promotion of self-employment opportunities and skilling does not seem to have had desired outcomes. The few women who had acquired tailoring skills (seemingly the only skill women learnt), operated out of their houses and had a smaller customer base. Since social relations overshadowed economic transactions in such a setting, these women received less than the market rate and often received delayed payment. In addition to the conceptual and practical social barriers women faced in setting up as micro-entrepreneurs, the demand for products coming from dalit households was also comparatively low. Skill training should involve education about doing business and developing backward and forward linkages. For a variety of reasons, skills are not as strongly related to employability in the case of dalit women. In general though, it is the case that despite significant government interventions in the area of skills and entrepreneurial development, wage employment and not self-employment is perceived as more important for household survival. This is also because of overhead costs associated with self-employment, irregular and fluctuating income flow etc.   

Any policy design on poverty has to contend with the fact that the poor are not a homogenous group. They are embedded in multiple affiliations, are subject to different compulsions and likely to be a polarised and contentious group. State initiatives for poverty reduction are cornered by the relatively better-off or those poor who are ‘tied’ or ‘loyal’ to the local elite. Rather than poverty alleviation and asset creation, a vicious cycle of dependency underlies attempts by the poor to access scarce resources and benefits. Moreover, poverty is dynamic-economic and social shocks, occurring in quick succession, can force even relatively better-off households into a worse-off position. The fieldwork clearly points to a multi-dimensional understanding of poverty.

A final point for consideration-if there are obvious limits to dalit politics i.e. the subversion of authentic and effective politics of representation for narrow sectarian gains, then are there alternate legitimate political and social institutions or movements to ensure the inclusion and empowerment of dalit women and other marginalised Indians who have been unjustly and deliberately rendered mute.

Ishita Mehrotra 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A Case for the Revival of the Indian Crafts Sector

Multiplying big brands from all over the world with marginal migrants lined up in the corner of the streets, Connaught Place is a hub of two contradicting realities. In the midst of the concrete structures that stand testimony to commercial capitalism, there are splashes of ethnic crafts. Right across the busy market of Janpath, I met Sarasvati. Soaked in sweat and glaring at my camera, I could gather that this was not the first time she was being clicked. She sat with a pile of golden fabric that her husband had collected from her village in Gujarat and she came to the city expecting a good bargain. And it is these contradictions that pose some central questions. What has been the government’s post-independence stance on industrialisation? Have the forces of competition and mass production unleashed by globalisation caused much harm to the culture and crafts sector than do good to India?
Liberalisation policies meant an end to the “License Raj”- the government loosened its protectionism over the micro industries and it marked a shift from crafts production to mass production. Late 1960’s saw “green revolution”, which was the exogenous push from the government which led to prosperity on both ends. Indian economy was liberalised in 1991, and an absence of a national policy or an agenda for the crafts sector reduced it to a secluded sector in India’s path to development.
The Handicrafts sector holds great promise, in terms of export potential and income and employment generation. It is estimated that crafts sector alone can employ 25 percent of country’s population. According to the Tenth Plan sub group report, the sector contributed around 25 percent to the GDP of the manufacturing sector. The carpet industry in India is the largest exporter in the world in terms of volume. Interestingly, around 50 percent of those employed in the sector are women.
The potential of the Indian craftsmen has not been fully tapped. Indian crafts industry has been sub-optimally employed, and the contribution of Indian handicrafts to the world exports is merely two percent. The multiplicity of middlemen has rendered the supply chain complex. Weaver’s suicides in various states, specifically Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, highlight the need for immediate government response towards tapping the sector’s immense potential.
The government, NGO’s and cultural as well as social entrepreneurs have a long way to go to revive the sector. A major issue is that of cluster identification. Since the sector is majorly unorganised, the data to categorise the clusters (as defined by the MSME industry) is unavailable and no clear methodology is formulated.
The silver lining is that there have been legislations and continuing efforts to secure and expand the rights of the craftsmen effectively. The Copyright Amendment Bill 2012, which entitles lifelong royalty to artistes and not producers, has been a step in the right direction to protect the rights of those in the creative sector. In order to give effective protection to Traditional Knowledge (TK) and Traditional Cultural Expression (TCE), the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources (IGC) has been working to develop a legal mechanism under which they will be recognised as intellectual property. This would be a landmark move as it will establish ownership of communities inheriting particular arts, crafts, medicine, designs and motifs and protect any kind of misappropriation by others.
Can India not have its own model of development, as unique as its culture?
Fair trade is an internationally recognised labelling system monitored by German-based Fairtrade International, which offers farmers in developing nations, who comply with certain social and environmental standards, higher than the market prices for their products in international markets. The label serves the two way purpose- ensuring the buyer of the quality of the product as well as ensuring better prices to the primary producers. Indian farmers have been a part of the European fair trade from past twenty years.
In an interesting turn of events, the Indian farmers have launched the Fairtrade Foundation India, a strategy working in Brazil, which aims to capture domestic market in similar manner. Application of a fair trade model to the crafts sector, with a central labelling/certification agency could prove instrumental in setting up permanent structures for the sector’s revival.
Drawing heavily from writings of Marx, Joseph Schumpeter gave the concept of “creative destruction”, standing for the hypothesis that “capitalist economic development arises out of the destruction of some prior economic order” and paves the way for a new one. The fall of Indian handicrafts post technocratic mass production meant the fall of an original economic order. Revival of the crafts sector is imperative, to acknowledge and protect the efforts of the “skilled hands”, like Sarasvati’s, which made India incredible.
Mahima Malik

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Invisible Cogs – India’s informal workers

Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Half of India’s $1.85 million economy is informal. Informal workers constitute more than 90% of the country’s workforce and generate about 50% of the country’s national product. Yet, legal and policy tools have failed to create an environment which promotes secure and productive economic opportunities, labour rights and benefits and protection for these workers.
International Labour Organization (ILO) notes that the term 'informal economy' refers to all economic activities by workers and economic units that are – in law or in practice – not covered or insufficiently covered by formal arrangements. Informal workers are everywhere – as cab drivers, domestic workers, waste pickers, vendors, cobblers, forest workers, private security guards, construction workers etc. and despite their contribution to the economy, they have been battling against their invisibility as ‘workers’ and their concerns largely remain unaddressed. Their activities are not included in the law, which means that they are operating outside the formal reach of the law; or they are not covered in practice, which means that – although they are operating within the formal reach of the law, it is neither applied nor enforced.
A fundamental legal demand across all occupational groups within the informal sector is that of obtaining recognition as workers, social protection and regulation of working conditions as afforded by labour law to other (formal) workers. Policies must also be framed to address the varied concerns of different occupational groups based on the nature and realities of their work and livelihood. For e.g., demands raised by forest, fish workers and miners have largely revolved around protecting traditional access to natural resources in a manner that ensures sustainable use,  strengthening pricing policy for craftsmen, transforming municipal laws to carve out spaces for urban vendors etc.  
Recognition as ‘worker’
The contract of employment is the primary means through which a person is recognised as an employee and is granted benefits and protection. A major hurdle in identifying many informal workers is the absence of an exclusive legal ‘employer-employee’ relationship established through an enforceable written contract. In fact, most often, employment is mediated through jobbers/contractors and is based on oral contract. 
There is a need for a broader definition of ‘worker’ to recognise those who fall outside traditional employer-employee relationship. An expanded concept would include not just those engaged in final stages of production or value addition, or those who work in what the labour law terms as ‘industry’, but also those engaged in collection of resources which constitute vital inputs for these industries (forest workers, tailors etc.)
Internationally, there exist legal provisions for informal working arrangements. Those, who do not enjoy an employee status (sub-contractors or self-employed) have been accepted as “workers” in the 1996 ILO Home Workers Convention as well as in the 2002 International Labour Conference Resolution and Conclusions on Decent Work and the Informal Economy. Policymakers need to lobby for the idea that informal workers, though outside an employment relationship based on a commercial contract, are entitled to basic rights and enjoy what the ILO calls “decent work.”
Social protection and regulation of working conditions
Of all informal workers, domes­tic workers have been most successful in getting their status as workers recognised under specific laws enacted by some states in India and securing certain welfare measures.  The enactment of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 and the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008, has the potential to cover all ‘workers’ in­cluding the self-employed (both dependent and independent) for the purpos­es of ensuring access to basic social security. However, the policies largely remain confined to paper.

Even when informal workers are covered by labour law de jure, this alone will not ensure that their position is immediately at par with formal workers. Erratic working hours, abysmal working conditions and poorly demarcated work spaces have meant that it is not possible to apply many of the minimum standards contained in the labour laws to the majority of these workers.

There is an urgent need to bring these workers within the purview of labour law or create alternative structures for social protection and regulation of working conditions as per the standards set by labour law. A related struggle is to ensure a decent and market price for their products (craftsmen, rag-pickers etc.) i.e. setting minimum support prices for many such occupational groups.
Political representatives and civil society groups must engage in dialogue and formulate innovative strategies centring on law and policy initiatives to address the core demands of this group – recognition as workers, social protection and regulation of working conditions.
There is huge incentive for political representatives to intervene in this area. Addressing the core demands of this group will have a direct positive bearing on earnings and  poverty levels leading to economic well–being and growth.
Deepti Somani

Monday, 17 February 2014

PCI needs to strengthen its roots before branching out

Photo Credit: The Hindu
In the midst of talks about bringing electronic media under the regulatory framework of Press Council of India, there is an urgent need to simultaneously consider empowering the statutory body to be able to formulate and enforce a common code of practice for journalists.
The PCI was set up in 1966 with the objective of preserving the freedom of press and improving and maintaining the standards of press in India. The PCI currently functions under the Press Council (Amendment) Act of 1970 that majorly changed provisions with regard to the selection and appointment of members in the Council. It has five members from the Parliament- three from Lok Sabha and two from Rajya Sabha-apart from the Chairman and 23 other members. Since journalistic standards cannot be maintained without regulating journalistic practices in electronic and social media, it is imperative that the PCI should exercise regulatory authority over all mediums involved in news reporting and publishing.
However, without sufficient authority to penalise and take disciplinary actions against deviant journalistic practices in print media, it is not equipped to tackle press excesses effectively in other media as well. Merely admonishing malpractice and imposing fines has proven to be insufficient to maintain journalistic standards within the fraternity. The members of the Council should thus be empowered enough to take disciplinary actions jointly against journalistic malpractices.
The argument of a self-regulating press fails in the wake of rampant malpractices including paid news, selective or fake reporting, extortion, blackmailing, etc. Secondly regulation does not imply control without accountability.
Rather, in order to avoid abuse and misuse of power vested in an independent regulatory body, clear metrics or quantitative parameters can be used to determine the degree of deviance by media firms. This includes particulars about funding received by the media organisation from clients buying media space or time slot for advertisements as well as ownership patterns in media. Also, maintaining records of news coverage might also help in identifying interest groups involved in malpractices like paid news.
For any disciplinary action taken against any firm thus, definite parameters for taking such an action need to be specified in written and made public whatsoever to ensure transparency and accountability of the statutory body.
Influence of Cross Media Ownership
Freedom of expression comes with the space for multiple opinions and views. With cross media ownership, where a conglomerate owns multiple channels of communication like newspapers, electronic media and digital media, this freedom rather shrinks since there is concentration of the circulation capacity of a conglomerate to disseminate one opinion. Moreover, contrary to popular belief of multiple views available from multiple sources, content is majorly determined and shaped by news trends generally initiated by one source but eventually gaining visibility in other sources as well with marginal differences. While this might be constructive and useful in some cases, there are chances of replicating a publicity gimmick that is used as a marketing strategy by most advertising agencies. Therefore, one needs to examine as to what inspires or rather what interests lead to publishing and circulation of a news report.
Need for alternate modes of Revenue generation
Smaller newspapers and dailies struggle to survive in the market as the industry mostly recovers costs and derives profit from advertisements. This implies that smaller newspapers and dailies with poor revenues and lower ad rates have to function with limited resources too, which in turn has an effect on the quality of news reports.
Therefore, while prescribing a common standard for the industry, there is a need to delve into fixing a common ad rate subject to market fluctuations. Moreover, other traceable and justifiable mediums of revenue generation can also be explored.  While India can boast of a flourishing newspaper industry at a time when markets are declining in the United States and United Kingdom, one need not neglect another trend, that is, the growth of media and entertainment marked by an increase in advertising spend. In many ways, the growth of the former can be said to have played a role in contributing to the latter phenomenon.
Clash of interests
In terms of identification of interests in the media industry as such, there seems to be contradictory forces operating simultaneously. In other words, a service oriented philanthropic ideal and its practice co-exists with commercial interests. Wherever the scale shifts media, by virtue of the space it occupies in the process of dialogue and communication, cannot naively eschew responsibility of the content produced and circulated.
Lastly, media has to be honest in acknowledging that to be misinformed is worse than being uninformed. Consequently, misinformation needs to be made liable to prosecution through regulation from an independent regulatory body on the basis of clearly formulated and defined metrics.
Thus, in order to have any real impact on industry practices and standards, political thrust- both within the PCI and on the Parliament floors- is required to prioritise and empower the PCI first and then include electronic media within its ambit.
Pallavi Ghosh

Friday, 14 February 2014

Emergence of Virtual Currency in India–Bitcoin

Photo Source:
Virtual currencies, a phenomenon triggered by technological developments and increased use of internet has been gaining momentum. There are close to 70 digital currencies in the world with a total market valuation of $15 billion (Rs.90,000 crores) out of which Bitcoin has the biggest share of $10 billion. India, currently has no regulatory framework to reap the benefit of such Virtual Currencies (VCs).

Bitcoin is a digital currency designed and implemented by Japanese programmer Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009. Bitcoins are obtained through mining which is done on powerful servers by solving solutions shared on network. Users can send and receive payments using this decentralised and peer to peer network. It has no intermediaries, which makes the process very fast and efficient.  All the transactions made are recorded in a public ledger. This makes the whole process transparent which enables to track even a smallest unit of the currency. Since the transaction process only requires a unique address which is not linked to the identity, it thus maintains the anonymity of the user. Its prices are determined by the supply and demand of the market just like any other fiat currency

According to some experts, it can overcome the limitations of traditional currencies that result from the monopolistic supply and management by central banks. If there are more issuers of the currency the demand for the money can be speculated more accurately eliminating the risk of high inflation. On the other if currency is open to competition it can guarantee a stable purchasing power and would eliminate other less stable currencies from the market. The result of this process of competition and profit maximisation would be a highly efficient monetary system where only stable currencies would coexist.

In a short span of three years, it has become one of the most expensive currencies of the world. It is currently being traded at around $900, and there are 12 million (57% of the eventual supply) of such coins in the market. The supply of Bitcoin mimics the supply of gold. A finite supply of 21 million units of such coins is expected to be produced by 2040. Many economists believe that it might be a bubble but a bubble occur when assets are overpriced, since the fundamental value of Bitcoin is still unknown it is too early to say it is a bubble.    

The phenomenal success of this model and extreme volatility of the prices has grabbed the eyes of regulatory authorities around the world. The regulatory authority of India, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) recently stated that it will not regulate any virtual currency including Bitcoin and warned the people of the financial sector as there are legal and security risks involved.

Main concerns raised by RBI are:
· It has no intrinsic value like gold; they are mere bits stored in the computer
· Its high volatility, a result of speculative activities, is hindering its general acceptance as a means of payments for on-line commerce.
· Since they are not created by or traded through any authorised central registry or agency, there is no way to get back stolen coins.
· There is no established framework for recourse to customer problems / disputes / charge backs etc.
· Usage of VCs for illegal activities. Users subjected to unintentional breaches of laws such as Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) laws. Most importantly in the absence of any authentication from RBI the money cannot be transferred in the users’ account hence making it less liquid.
The Reserve Bank is currently examining the issues associated with the usage, holding and trading of VCs under the extant legal and regulatory framework of the country, including Foreign Exchange and Payment Systems laws and regulations. Income Tax Department is also interested in imposing taxes on Bitcoin businesses in the long run and is awaiting RBI’s clean chit. India’s indigenous digital currency Laxmicoin is also waiting for a green signal from RBI to proceed.

A recent study (2013) by Bank of America claims that Bitcoin has a potential to grow and give a tuff competition to the traditional payment networks. Considering the demographic changes and increasing internet crowd in India virtual currencies can play a vital role in the e- commerce industry. Due to recent warnings from RBI, many Bitcoin operators in India have suspended their operations- temporarily or indefinitely. Any irrational approach without knowing its economic consequences will send a negative signal to the business.
The global economics platform has been aggressively debating complex questions- ‘Are virtual currencies capable of self regulation- free from government intervention – or if government regulation is indispensable for their effective management’. It is believed that the government intervention can stabilize its value to some extent. 

In the time when internet has become an unstoppable force and economics has been experimenting with alternative models, the Bitcoin phenomenon poses an urgent need for concrete government directions on its stance. India can no longer afford to ignore the issue of VC. It is only with clear understanding of the origin and the need of virtual currencies that India can take a stand on the issue and fully tap the benefits of such e-payment networks. Simply ignoring of an idea would not serve any purpose. It is perhaps useful to have a detailed document by RBI on the viability of VCs in India.
Neha Singh

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Kudumbashree: Pride of Kerala

Photo Source: Hindu Business Line
Kudumbashree, an innovative mission for poverty eradication through women’s empowerment, is one of the most successful programmes being implemented by the state of Kerala.  Kerala, a tiny state lying in the south-west part of India, has been home to many development experiments. Kudumbashree is one such experiment. Its mission is empowerment of women through collectivisation i.e. organising them into self-help groups and encouraging their entrepreneurial and other activities. The purpose of the mission is to ensure the transformation of women from being passive recipients of public assistance to being active leaders in development initiatives.

Kudumbashree was the outcome of the collective experience gained from the many anti-poverty programs of the past. Most of the well intentioned but centrally planned, rigid and individual-oriented anti-poverty programs of the central and state government had failed to bring about the desired results, mainly because they did not have any scope for the involvement of the poor. They viewed the poor as "resourceless" recipients of benefits. Launched by the Government of Kerala in 1998 with a view to  wipe out absolute poverty from the state through concerted community action under the leadership of local self governments, Kudumbashree today  is one of the largest women-empowering projects in the country. The programme has 37 lakh members and covers more than 50% of the households in Kerala. The Kudumbashree initiative has succeeded in addressing the basic needs of the less privileged women and in providing them a more dignified life and a better future. The literal meaning of Kudumbashree is prosperity (shree) of family (Kudumbam). Kudumbashree differs from conventional programmes in that it perceives poverty not just as the lack of money, but also as the deprivation of basic rights. The poor need to find a collective voice to claim these rights. There are two distinguishing characteristics to Kudumbashree which set it apart from the usual SHG model of empowerment. The first one is its universality of reach. From its very inception Kudumbashree has attempted to bring every poor woman in the state within its fold, as a consequence of which today Kudumbashree is present in every village panchayat and municipality, and in nearly every ward, colony and hamlet. The sheer spread is spectacular, and it is only because the local community of women drive the system that it has managed to persevere. The second characteristic is the scope of community interface in local governance. The functioning of Kudumbashree is tied up to the development initiatives of the local government be it for social infrastructure, welfare or right based interventions or for employment generation. From food security to health insurance, from housing to enterprise development, every development experience depends on Kudumbashree to provide the community interface.

The grassroots of Kudumbashree are neighbourhood groups (NHG) that send representatives to the ward level area development societies (ADS). In turn, the ADS sends its representatives to the community development societies (CDS) which completes the unique three tier structure of Kudumbashree. Today, there are 1.94 lakhs NHGs, over 17,000 ADSs and 1061 CDSs in Kudumbashree. In contrast with the previous poverty eradication programmes, there are no specific financial and physical targets set for Kudumbashree. Kudumbashree practices a process approach and not a project approach.

As the mission reaches its 16th year, Kudumbashree has successfully made deep inroads into various sections of Kerala’s society and today stands as a role model for other states in the country for women empowerment. Through its efforts to engage women in civil society and in development issues and opportunities, Kudumbashree, in association with the local self government units of Kerala, is charting out new meaning and possibilities for local economic development and people centric governance

Anjana John


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A Rural Housing Policy that is missing!!

A roof over the head is a basic right of every human being. For those who do not have one, it is a
dream. Home does not only provide protection, it also has symbolic significance in a person’s life. In addition to security, owning a house adds to the status, dignity and affects the social, physical and psychological well being of a person.

India, with its predominantly rural populace, faces a unique challenge in addressing adequate housing for all. The XIIth five year plan has estimated the current rural housing shortage at 44 million houses, out of which 90 per cent of the rural housing shortage are in the BPL categories. Yet India does not have a Rural Housing Policy!
Mismatch between the availability of housing stock and number of households is one aspect of housing inadequacy. The other aspect relates to the mismatch between the desired and actual quality. Kuchcha or semi –pucca house with thatched roofs, mud walls, no cooking space and poor ventilation describe the living conditions of a poor man. According to the National Family Health Survey (2000), only 19% of the rural population lives in pucca houses, while the remaining live in kaccha and semi-pucca houses. Poor living conditions have direct bearing on the health of the rural poor.
The Housing Policy of 1998 which is supposed to address the housing needs of both the rural and the urban population has shown considerable bias towards the urban needs.  It is futile to challenge the fact that the needs, aspirations and demography of the urban and the rural are dissimilar.  To ensure parity in development, the housing needs of the rural areas have to be addressed separately which is possible only when India has an exclusive Rural Housing Policy.
Government initiative in rural housing has been through the subsidy based Indira Awas Yojna Scheme (IAY) and similar other schemes. There are also state wise housing schemes targeted to different target groups like the SCs, STs and BPL families, such as, Jharkhand Government’s Birsa Awaas Yojana and Siddho-Kanu Awas Yojna, Rajasthan’s Mukhya Mantri Gramin BPL Awaas Yojana, Tamil Nadu’s Kaliagnar Housing Scheme and two schemes in Karnataka namely Basava Vasathi Yojana and Ambedkar Housing Scheme, to name a few.
All these housing schemes vary in terms of the target audience, implementing agencies, funding opportunities and unit cost of the house. However the participation of all the States has not been equal. In some cases, States do not have separate State level agencies for taking up the Rural Housing Programmes, in other cases, funds taken from HUDCO are passed on as loans to beneficiaries but the cost is ultimately borne on the budget as the recovery rate is very poor.   Similarly the IAY scheme which has been beneficial in several ways, have many shortcomings like inadequacy of space, unit cost, selection of beneficiaries, ownership issues, lack of people’s and other stakeholders participation. Building the capacity of beneficiaries to build their house and enabling them to construct disaster resistant houses have been ignored under the IAY.  The housing programmes have loopholes and have not been able to achieve its targets to reduce the gap between the demand and supply of housing units.
Apart from the physical structure of a house, what people also require are – electricity, sewage system, toilets and safe drinking water. Thus there is a need to have a comprehensive Rural Housing Policy that would address the shortage of dwelling units along with the bleak habitat conditions of rural India by providing decent and affordable housing to the rural poor, linking Housing Finance Institutions and Micro Finance Institutions with the housing programmes, reorganising delivery mechanisms and bringing legal reforms to facilitate access to land titles for the poor. The Policy should focus on strengthening the capacities of the people living in rural areas and ensure that the Panchayats are successfully engaged in implementing the housing schemes. In addition, the housing policy should promote the development of micro enterprises that would open employment opportunities for villagers. The Rural Housing Policy should not only meet the demand of dwelling units but also make sure that these dwelling units are of live-able quality and resistant to nature’s susceptibility. Promotion of locally available environment friendly construction materials and technology should also be an integral part of the Policy.
Investment in rural housing will have a high multiplier effect on income and employment of the rural people, therefore reinforce Government’s strategy towards inclusive economic growth. It is estimated that overall employment generation in the economy due to additional investment in the housing/construction is eight times the direct employment. (IIM-Ahmedabad Study, 2000)
As rightly said by Mahatma Gandhi “India lives in her villages” and “If the village perishes India will perish too”, therefore only an integrated Rural Housing Policy can achieve desired results in building India of our dreams.

Abhishikta Roy