A ‘rights-based’ twist is what Sonia Gandhi, the Chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, gives to the achievements of the UPA I & II governments1, while announcing the second year report card of the UPA-II government to the people of India on May 22, 2011. She claims that the UPA-II government is building upon the approach of ‘providing legal entitlements to the people’. She goes on to list the entitlements granted by the government to the citizens. However, apparently in a deliberate omission; the right to social security for unorganised workers does not appear in the list, notwithstanding the fact that the UPA-I, at the fag end of their tenure, enacted ‘Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, (UWSSA) 2008’2, granting in principle, the universal right to social security for all unorganised workers in India.

rightsThe 2008 Act has been criticised widely for serious deficiencies – that it does not guarantee any justiceable right to social security for workers, contains no provision for the creation of a social security fund, excludes more than 90 per cent of workers by delimiting eligible unorganised workers as only those living below the poverty line (BPL), the inadequacy of the monetary provisions and that it precludes ‘unemployment and disruption of livelihood’ within the possible social security benefits to workers etc. Already existing ten disparate schemes, managed by different ministries or agencies and serving limited groups of workers, were put together as a Schedule to the Act, essentially undermining the universality of the Act, and bringing in built in arbitrariness to the provisions of social security. The listed schemes were 1. Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme; 2. National Family Benefit Scheme; 3 Janani Suraksha Yojana; 4. Handloom Weaver’s comprehensive Welfare Scheme; 5. Handicraft Artisan’s Comprehensive Welfare Scheme; 6. Pension to Master Craft Persons; 7. National Scheme for Welfare of Fishermen and Training and Extension; 8. Janshree Bima Yojana; 9. Aam Admi Bima Yojana and 10. Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana.

Nevertheless, government claimed this as a major achievement. ‘Welfare of workers in the unorganised sector’ constituted a major claim of the 2004-08 report card of the UPA-I government to the people3. The report card says that in anticipation of the Unorganised Sector Social Security Bill, 2007 being made into law, the Government has launched three major schemes – Aam Admi Bima Yojana for life and disability insurance cover to one member of estimated 1crore landless households; Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) for family health cover to estimated 6 crore unorganised sector workers living below the poverty line; and Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, covering all 1crore persons over 65 years living below the poverty line. It also mentioned the Rajiv Gandhi Shilpi Swasthya Bima Yojana launched to provide health insurance coverage to artisans and their families and the Handloom Weavers’ Comprehensive Welfare Scheme launched for insurance cover to weavers. However, it is to be noted that out of these, only the National Old Age Pension has been listed in the schedule of the Act, clearly showing the arbitrariness in the government’s approach to social security.

The year I report card of the UPA-II government (2009-10), claimed that 163 lakh old age people targeted under the BPL household have been covered under the IGNOAPS with a paltry central assistance of Rs. 200 per month in the age group of 65 years or above. It also announced government’s intention to set up a National Security Fund with an initial allocation of Rs.1000 crore. A provision for the same amount, grossly inadequate and unreasonable for social security of more than 400 million workers, was later announced in the 2010 budget. Though not under the schedule of the USSWA, the emphasis now moves on to RSBY, and declares that 99.03 lakh cards were issued during 2009-10 for providing health insurance cover under the scheme.

A key issue to be noted here is that the social security has surreptitiously been reduced to (a) old age pension under IGNOAPS and (b) health under RSBY; both not discussed as being implemented under the provisions of the UWSSA. Both had an extremely narrow focus, being applicable to BPL workers.

The year II report card of the UPA-II government (2010-11), does not mention UWSSA or social security for unorganised workers, showing a gradual but definite burial of the UWSSA and along with that the concept of social security as a right for all workers. The 2011 budget did not have any financial allocation for UWSSA, even the fund of Rs.1000 crore announced in the previous year’s budget mysteriously vanishes! The focus again have been, outside the framework of UWSSA— on Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme and on Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana. To this has been added ’ Swavalamban scheme’, a pet insurance project of the Finance Ministry, which provides retirement benefit to subscribers.

The gradual, but definite shift away from UWSSA cannot be accidental; rather it is part and parcel of the changes happening in government’s approach to social security, which is in synchronisation with its overall economic policy. Social policy scholars make a distinction between institutional social policy and residual social policy4. The institutional social policy perspective believes in extensive government intervention in economy and social affairs and argues that government social policies should cover everybody and provide universal benefits and social services for all on a long term basis. Residual social policy perspective, on the other hand, argues for limited state intervention, a high degree of personal responsibility, the involvement of nonprofit organizations in welfare and the maximum use of market mechanisms to meet social needs. They believe that government’s role should be limited to providing a safety net for those who cannot help themselves and helping the proportion of the population that is not able to function ‘effectively’ in the market.

The residual approach entails a poverty approach to social welfare and uses targeting as a method to achieve it. It argues that government intervention towards providing social welfare should be restricted to those below an identified poverty line. A universal approach is seen as a wastage of national income. India’s economic growth in recent years has been attributed to the policies of economic liberalisation pursued by the successive governments since early ‘90s, which in fact, has further entrenched this approach as evident from the stated objective of the UID (AADHAAR) programme5 and implementation of world bank supported targetted cash transfer programmes.

Government considers ‘efficiency’ more crucial for sustained economic development than ‘equity’, in a trade-off between the two, in spite of the fact that it talks a lot on inclusiveness. Targeted benefits are never a right but the extension of the magnanimity of the state. Even the limited targetted benefits, government would now like to be tested for market efficiency. One of the strategy challenges for the 12th Plan as articulated by the Planning Commission has been how to improve markets for efficiency and inclusion. It says, ‘Open, integrated, and well-regulated markets for land, labour, and capital and for goods and services are essential for growth, inclusion, and sustainability. We have many sectors were markets are non-existent or incomplete, especially those which are dominated by public provisioning.’ Here, markets of ‘labour’ and ‘public provisioning’ have been considered inefficient and need transformation.

The push for privatization of social security, with the replacement of defined-benefit programmes by defined-contribution programmes in RSBY and Swavalambhan are in synchronisation with the “capital market friendly policies” of the government. The emphasis is on health and pension expenses of the government, where the responsibility is passed on to the individuals and the market.

This push is not independent of or different from the push for ‘labour market flexibility’ very strongly advocated by the Planning Commission – a threat to universal rights of workers including the right to organise and collective bargaining; human terms of employment; safe working conditions; living wage and social security. As Stiglitz has said, “Labour market flexibility” and “capital market liberalization” may appear as symmetric policies, freeing up the labour and capital markets, respectively; but they have very asymmetric consequences – and both serve to enhance the welfare of capital at the expense of workers6. There is a design behind the missing achievement of UWSSA in the report card of the UPA-II government.

1. Sonia Gandhi asserted, “UPA-I transformed the very nature of administration and governance by its “rights-based” approach for empowering our citizens – the Right to Information Act, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Forest Rights Act. The Mahatma Gandhi NREGA is today the world’s largest and most effective social safety net programme. Through the Right to Information, a whole new cadre of RTI activists have emerged across the country. The Forest Rights Act is not only empowering our tribals and other communities, but it is also a means to meet the challenge of left wing extremism.
UPA-II is consciously building upon this approach of providing legal entitlements to the people. The Right to Education Act, one of the first major legislations of UPA-II, has become a reality and has already resulted in huge increases in enrollment rates.
The National Food Security Act is being finalized. This will be a great step forward in fulfilling our pledge to end hunger and malnutrition once-and- for all.
2. The Unorganised Worker Social Security Bill, 2007 was debated and passed by the Rajya Sabha in October, 2008 and by the Lok Sabha in December, 2008.
3. Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Report to the People Upa Government 2004 – 2008. New Delhi: Government of India, 2008.
4. Midgley, James. “Developmental Social Policy: Theory and Practice.” Asian Journal of Social Policy Vol.2/1 (2006): 1-22.
5. Prime Minister, in his introduction to the UPA-II report card has stated that “the AADHAAR project, though a universal one, is expected to go a long way in helping the targetted delivery of benefits to our people”
6. Joseph E. Stiglitz. “Employment, Social Justice and Societal Well-Being.” International Labour Review Vol.141, No.1-2 (2002): 9-30.

SOURCE: Labour File Feature Service