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`Historic' Bill for jobs in rural areas

Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: Fulfilling its promise of assured jobs, the United Progressive Alliance Government moved the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill in the Lok Sabha on Thursday. It aims to provide 100 days of guaranteed wage employment to rural households in 200 districts.

The amended Bill, introduced last year, was moved by Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh amid thumping of desks and support from across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was present and his contribution came in for a special mention by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

"Banishing poverty"

Describing the social security measure as a "historic bill," Dr. Singh said it aimed at banishing poverty through assured employment. It was only through amelioration of poor economic conditions in rural areas could prosperity be achieved.

The Bill, promised by the Congress in its manifesto and part of the National Common Minimum Programme, was fine-tuned over the last two days; the supporting Left Parties made five suggestions.

It promises wage employment to every rural household, in which adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work, Mr. Raghuvansh Prasad said, moving a separate list of amendments.

Initially 200 districts, including 150 now under the food for work programme, would be covered under the Bill. It would be extended to all 600 districts in five years. The Bill also provides for unemployment allowance if the job, under the scheme, is not provided. The minimum daily wage has been fixed at Rs. 60.

Mr. Raghuvansh Prasad said some 72 crore people lived in rural areas. As per an amendment approved by the Cabinet, the word "poor household" was replaced with "household" for guaranteeing a job to one person in each household. The original Bill identified families below the poverty line as beneficiaries.

Wage not adequate: Kalyan

Initiating a discussion, Kalyan Singh (Bharatiya Janata Party) said the decision to provide Rs. 60 a day for 100 days of guaranteed employment would mean only Rs. 500 a month; it would not be sufficient to run a family.

Mr. Singh, whose Parliamentary Standing Committee examined the Bill, said the legislation could lead to friction within a family, especially joint families, over selection of the member for the job. The process could also work against women and the physically challenged, who might be left out.

Demanding universal application, he wondered how some State Governments, whose financial distress was known, could be asked to fund even 10 per cent. While gram panchayats had a role in selecting works, the gram sabhas could be empowered to monitor and evaluate progress.

Hannan Mollah (CPI-M) demanded a similar law for the urban poor, universal application to individuals and not families, and amendments to the enactment only through Parliament. He said there was an urgent need to change the mindset, which was "insensitive to the needs of the poor," and cautioned the UPA not to repeat the mistakes committed by the National Democratic Alliance Government.

Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal-United) said employment guarantee for 100 days was not be sufficient. The Congress had worked on its "garibi hatao" slogan only after over three decades.

Tathagat Tattaghat Satpathy (Biju Janata Dal) said the legislation was driven by the consideration that funds flow to rural areas would increase the purchasing power of the population to buy goods sold by multinationals. What assets did the Government plan to build under it?

S. Sudhakar Reddy (CPI) said the criticism of lacunae in the Bill was not valid and these could be addressed. He suggested the setting up of a fund to finance those States, which could not meet 10 per cent expenditure.

Jyotiraditya Scindia (Congress) said the Bill would bring justice to the poor.

The debate was inconclusive and is likely to be completed on Monday, when the House is expected to vote on the Bill.