Having a job does not automatically exempt workers from belonging to the vast army of the laboring poor. “… it is not regularity versus irregularity which is responsible for the divide in the workforce, but the contrast between formality and informality. Thus the informal workforce at large… does not enjoy employment security… work security… and social security… of the total workforce of close to half a billion, less than one-tenth enjoys the blessings of formal employment. Among the remaining… 425 million, we would include around 300 million to be situated within the brackets of the laboring poor or vulnerable to sliding down to that predicament”. Against this backdrop, and in contrast to the comprehensive ‘leveling-up’ strategy suggested by the NCEUS in 2006, Kannan and Breman examine the Indian State’s [watered down] initiatives aimed at: [i] provision of employment in public works [NREG]; [ii]a package of contingent social security, including insurance against failing health [RSBY]; and [iii] social benefits for the non-labouring poor [old age pension scheme, widows’ pension scheme, disability pension scheme, etc]. The volume under review is a result of a series of studies conducted across a few states to gauge the impact of the schemes on the targeted population.
The Introduction by the editors, apart from flagging key themes covered in state specific papers, also makes some critical observations on the minimal contribution by capital. While capital benefits immensely by being able to draw upon the vast pool of informal workers it is neither being taxed adequately nor called upon to contribute to the reproduction cost of labour. Across states studied, there is wide variation in achievements, depending on [a] how committed a particular state government and/or its bureaucratic machinery is in reaching out to the targeted population; [b] presence of social activists and/or organisations working for the poor; and [c] level of participation, and capacity of beneficiaries to assert their rights, assuming they are aware of the schemes and the terms and conditions of eligibility.
Apart from the Introduction, the volume consists of 13 papers; two overview papers, two papers each for the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, and, three for Gujarat. The papers are extremely informative and supplement secondary data analyses with information collected from field. For obvious reasons we will comment on only a few. Reddy’s assessment of the functioning and impact of NREGA in AP is among the best in the volume in terms of the breadth of its coverage, depth of the treatment of the subject and most important, for the political economy perspective that it brings to bear on the subject. Two issues among several key observations made by Reddy are worth noting: one, ownership of the centrally enacted programme by the state, and, two, prioritising NREG works on lands belonging to SC, ST, BPL households.
Kunhikannan and Aravindan’s very perceptive observations of the nature of fraud, misuse, unethical practices based on their study of the delivery of health services in two panchayats in Kerala, an otherwise model state as far as the social sector is concerned, is a very telling comment on how erosion of values and lack of a code of conduct right across the spectrum of personnel charged with delivery of services can lead to sub-optimal results, even while the façade of a functioning programme is maintained.
Breman’s scathing observations based on his study of ‘the most deprived’ in four villages in South Gujarat needs to be read against the hype that posits Gujarat as a developmental state. To quote one such observation: “This whole construction of the role of NREGS is a façade, a make-believe kind of theatre in South Gujarat, a pretence which is not difficult to deny. The discrepancy between official fancy and down-to-earth fact is borne out by the findings of the social auditors. A telling detail is that from a total of 81 projects reported by the authorities to have been successfully completed in the sub-district of Chikhli, the large majority  existed only on paper, although the budget for all of them was spent, sometimes even overspent”. Mahadevia’s study of urban poor relief raises important questions about denial of citizenship for want of legal identity which in turn leads to denial of relief.
Kumbhar’s study of NREG in Odisha gives us further insights into both fraudulent and desperate practices: while Panchayat officials in the village studied retained 50% of job cards, the desperate need to secure gainful employment resulted in the practice of renting out of cards. Similarly, Das’s study of RSBY in Odisha is replete with details of how, at every step, the system functions, not to enable the poor to secure relief, but for officials to amass wealth. The Punjab study foregrounds the point that, given that different political parties are in power at the Centre and in Punjab, the State government is clearly not willing to implement schemes, the political gains of which it perceives would be appropriated by the Centre.
Several papers are analytically poor. It is clear that the editors are keen that the field evidence-based material on the specific schemes chosen for examination lead to some serious soul searching. But what is lost in the process is the opportunity that such rich material provided do go back with a critical lens to literature that theorises on what constitutes public policy-making of which ‘implementation’ is an integral part.
(Padmini Swaminathan is Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad)