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Can the right to work be made real in India?

As economies around the world struggle to recover from the double whammy of a pandemic and a lockdown, unemployment is soaring. In India, the land of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the promise of jobs and the politics of unemployment have a long history. Can a citizen demand work as a right, and is it the state’s responsibility to provide employment? Reetika Khera and Amit Basole discuss the possible policy approaches to the right to work, in a conversation moderated by G. Sampath. Edited excerpts:

What is the legal status of the right to work internationally and in India?

Reetika Khera: The right to work was a big topic of discussion after World War II, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to work in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In India, we don’t have a constitutional right to work. But what we do have is MGNREGA. This is a step in the direction of a right to work, but it is a statutory right. Under MGNREGA, a person can hold the state accountable for not fulfilling the right by demanding an unemployment allowance. But if the law is amended or withdrawn, the right vanishes.

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Is the right to work relevant as a concept any more given that most countries have embraced the market economy? India has been seeing a declining jobs-to-GDP ratio, and mostly jobless growth, with labour also subject to the laws of the market.

Amit Basole: It is precisely under these circumstances that this right becomes important. The term ‘right to work’ is often used in the context of unemployment or lack of availability of work. But there is also another sense of it, which is the right to earn my livelihood without any obstruction. In both these senses, what we have seen in the past few decades is that the path of development not only does not create adequate employment opportunities, it also actively dispossesses or displaces people from their means of livelihood. So, on the one hand, displacement and dispossession, and on the other, failure to create new jobs make it all the more important to imagine the right to work in a creative way and make it legally enforceable.

Reetika Khera: These are basic questions for policymakers that don’t get enough attention. For instance, GDP growth can come from both an increase in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction as well as from the manufacture of medicines. Similarly, we rarely discuss per capita GDP growth; most discussion centres on overall growth even though from the vantage point of people’s welfare, the former matters more. Distribution issues are buried in subtle ways. For a labour-abundant country like India, I’m not sure how much policy sense it makes to encourage capital-intensive methods of production. It made sense in the countries in which these techniques of production evolved since they were labour-scarce. But more and more automation in a country like India is likely to lead to jobless growth. Such fundamental questions about our growth strategy need further deliberation.

How exactly do we make the right to work, work?

Reetika Khera: One approach is Decentralised Urban Employment and Training, or DUET, which has been around for some time. The idea here, like with MGNREGA, is to create new employment opportunities so that those who are unemployed may be gainfully employed and earn a dignified living. This dignity is supposed to come from work conditions, such as being paid a fair wage and having regulated work hours, and also from the social value of the work that people do — useful things such as repairing school buildings, cleaning parks, and so on.


For DUET, urban local bodies can issue job vouchers to certified public institutions such as schools and universities for pre-approved tasks. These institutions can only use the vouchers to hire labour for pre-defined tasks — e.g. painting school buildings, repairing broken furniture, and so on. A whole range of skills can be accommodated. So this is a workable agenda, but to make it workable, we need not only political will, but also fiscal resources.

Amit Basole: The right to work is not only about lack of adequate work but also the profound lack of public goods and assets, in urban India generally. It is the state’s responsibility to provide these public goods, and this imperative can be combined with an employment creation programme just like MGNREGA does in rural areas. In MGNREGA too, the asset creation part is often under-emphasised, and it would be good to bring both these things together through an urban employment guarantee. Interestingly, three States — Odisha, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh — have launched something along these lines in the wake of COVID-19. There are bits of these policies that could be used if we wanted to try it out on a national scale. Together with MGNREGA, an Urban Employment Guarantee can be a very important piece of the puzzle, on the way to ensuring the right to work.

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So, is the right to work the same as an employment guarantee?

Amit Basole: No, I won’t reduce it to an employment guarantee. With the idea of right to work, the question is: what is the responsibility of the state in a capitalist economy where welfare and employment are not a guaranteed by-product of private economic activity? So, if private economic activity cannot generate an adequate number of decent livelihoods, or if it displaces livelihoods, then what is incumbent on the state to do? That is the question. I view this as a holistic thing. So we’re talking not only about the state generating its own work — for public goods, education, healthcare, administration, etc.

To be sure, for all these things which the state is supposed to do, it should generate its own employment. But at the same time, it’s also supposed to safeguard people’s employment. That includes everything, from ensuring that street vendors have vending zones, and fish workers are protected, to ensuring that farmers have viable incomes — all of this comes broadly under the right to livelihood or right to work. One small part of this can be an employment guarantee, but by no means is it the only thing.

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Speaking of the state’s responsibilities, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in its Bihar poll manifesto promised 10 lakh government jobs. As a measure towards the right to work, how feasible is this approach where the state is the major employer?

Reetika Khera: The RJD manifesto, so far as jobs are concerned, has appealing elements. It picks up on the issue of vacant posts in government jobs. These are posts that are sanctioned but not yet filled. Many of these are essential services — teachers, nurses, ASHA workers, anganwadi workers, doctors, etc. So, not only will it create employment, it will also hopefully fill the void in essential public services.

In this context, people often cite the example of Thailand, which has a universal basic healthcare system that is labour-intensive. It solves two problems at the same time: it builds social infrastructure, and creates jobs. Is this something India can adopt?

Amit Basole: Absolutely. It is incumbent on the state to provide basic services such as health, education and housing, and in providing them, employment is generated. There may be some disagreement on whether it is the state itself that should provide, or if there should be room for private provisioning. But I don’t think people disagree that we need to expand spending on these things. We are nowhere near countries that are comparable in GDP per capita, such as Vietnam, and countries that spend much more on public goods as a percentage of their GDP. We should do that. That will create jobs.

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The government has whittled down 44 labour laws into four labour codes that labour organisations have criticised as a dilution of workers’ rights. Where there is a dilution of rights ‘in work’, as it were, how does it matter whether or not there is a right ‘to work’?

Amit Basole: You are right to ask if it is at all worth raising the right to work question when very fundamental rights ‘in work’ are being violated, and violated not only for lack of legislation, but also because of labour legislation being diluted. In terms of the labour code changes, one thing to remember is that India is a labour surplus economy. In the capital-labour bargaining process, labour is structurally weak in India, which means it is incumbent on the state to provide that support to labour. But the state has been doing the opposite; it has abdicated a fundamental responsibility in that sense.

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Reetika Khera: Over the decades, there has been a dilution of worker rights in India. A key point that is often lost in public debate is that, to the extent that protective labour laws exist/existed in India, they apply to a minuscule sliver of the labour force, say, people in permanent government jobs. For the rest, there is very little legal protection, very poor awareness of the protections that exist, and weak implementation. Yet, the mainstream narrative is that all labour in India is pampered. The labour codes that have just come into being are likely to further this process of weakening the position of labour in the Indian market.

Amit Basole: Just to connect this to what we were saying about employment guarantee earlier, an effective employment guarantee programme can be an excellent solution to the structural weakness of labour. So, given the constraints in state capacity when it comes to enforcing labour laws, tightening the labour market is a great way to ensure that workers are treated well. That is how a good employment guarantee programme would function as far as the rights ‘in work’ are concerned. If the state steps in and significantly reduces the surplus labour, particularly in the casual market, it automatically creates the conditions for better treatment of workers.

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From a philosophical perspective, as human beings, isn’t a demand for the right to work setting the bar too low? We were speaking of dignity earlier — shouldn’t the demand really be for right to leisure rather than right to work?

Reetika Khera: A poster from the World War II period says ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of rest’. That was the original demand. Perhaps the correct way to view this is that if you guarantee a good eight hours of work, then automatically you are guaranteed that the rest is for you to enjoy your life, or the fruits of your labour.

Amit Basole: There is this 19th century book by Paul Lafargue called The Right to be Lazy, which was a response to the right to work campaign going on at that time, and his point was, why are we asking for the right to work, we should be asking for the right to be lazy! This is a live debate in Marxian political economy. The right to work essentially plays into capitalism and the work ethic — the right to work is the right to be exploited by capital. And that is a perfectly fair point of view. If you are really looking at the future of humanity, then one cannot take a narrow perspective. Work should be fulfilling, work should be creative, and work has to be put in its place, which is hopefully a very small place.

Amit Basole is Head, Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; Reetika Khera  is Associate Professor of Economics at IIT-Delhi

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 2:39:53 PM |

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