India has a problem with workplace discrimination

India: work for everyone?

India now ranks fourth on the list of the world's largest economies, behind the USA, China and Japan, but ahead of Germany. The Indian economy has grown continuously by over seven percent annually over the past 13 years. So is the subcontinent becoming a land of prosperity and abundance?

Barely. Because on closer inspection, the economic giant turns out to be a sociopolitical dwarf. It is true that the average annual per capita income doubled within just a decade, between 1995 and 2005; nevertheless, around 40 percent of the 1.2 billion Indians are still considered poor. According to World Bank estimates, a third of all absolutely poor people in the world still live in India.[1] In the United Nations Development Index, which includes health and education indicators in addition to the average per capita income, India continues to occupy one of the lower places; in 2010 it was number 119 out of 169.

To this day there is a stark contradiction between "Shining India", the shiny India that the Hindu nationalist party BJP conjured up in an election slogan in 2005, and the proverbial "darkness" of the rural areas that are not connected to the power supply or other infrastructure.[2]

After all, the Indian government of the United Progressive Alliance has now recognized the consequences of the one-sided growth policy.[3] Your new mantra is inclusive growth. As a result, from now on every Indian should benefit from growth and prosperity and no longer just the consumption-oriented upper and middle classes in the sprawling cities.

After their election victory in 2005, the coalition partners, the regional and left-wing parties under the leadership of the Congress Party, gave themselves a strong socio-political profile with the National Common Minimum Program (CMP). The heart of this federal government program is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which was subsequently named after the freedom fighter who is still revered to this day. The aim of this law is to finally enforce the right to work enshrined in the Indian constitution: it promises work for everyone in rural areas, where three quarters of all Indians who are considered poor live.[4] The law is the basis of the largest employment program in the world.

In the last closed financial year from April 2009 to March 2010, people from over 50 million rural households worked an average of 54 working days in over 4.6 million projects. The central government spent around 625 million euros on this, three percent of the federal budget or just under one percent of the gross domestic product. In the 2010/2011 budget year, the number of participants rose to almost 55 million households, while the number of days worked fell to an average of 46.8.[5]

However, the law does not only respond to the lack of productive employment opportunities and the unequal distribution of the returns from economic growth. It should also guarantee the right to democratic participation. Further goals are the reduction of poverty and the sustainable development of rural infrastructure, which should also reduce the ongoing migratory pressure on cities. These are all welcome goals. But how does the claim relate to reality?

100 days of work

The core of the law is the employment component, which consists of the state guarantee of at least 100 days of paid work per year and household in all rural districts of India. The state undertakes to offer employment to everyone willing to work within 14 days of their registration and within five kilometers of their place of residence. If this does not happen, the states are obliged to pay unemployment benefits. The work is also remunerated in accordance with the statutory minimum wage. Initially, the regionally applicable minimum wages for farm workers were paid; in April 2009 this regulation was then abandoned in favor of a nationwide uniform real wage of 100 rupees (about 1.50 euros) per day. Most recently, in January 2011, it was decided to link wages to the consumer price index for rural workers in the future, which resulted in further wage increases. As a result, private employers in rural areas face competition from the state and are in turn forced to raise wages. Not least for this reason, the program is rejected by entrepreneurs, especially from the construction industry, and large farmers.

Access to employment should be facilitated by focusing on easy-to-learn but physically difficult work (such as digging trenches and wells, building dams or planting trees). In this way, jobseekers without any further qualifications can also take part in the program. The extensive ban on the use of machines also prevents construction companies from carrying out the work instead of the local population.

The majority of the population rated the employment guarantee as positive. Because the employment situation has actually improved in parts of the country. The greatest success is that the negotiating position of farm workers has been strengthened by the program. Private employers are sometimes forced to pay wages of up to 130 rupees; In the long term, the usual daily wages of 20 to 30 rupees will be a thing of the past in all parts of the country. After the state minimum wages for agricultural workers could not be enforced for 60 years, there is now hope of achieving this goal within a few years and correcting the overall wage level upwards.

The prerequisite for this, however, is that the program is actually accessible and reliable nationwide for every jobseeker. Because only if farm workers have the opportunity to earn their living elsewhere can they also successfully demand higher wages on the private labor market. However, the regional differences in the implementation of the program are enormous. In the state of Rajasthan in the north-west, for example, participation is high overall, and the participating households work an average of 69 days per year, in some districts even more than 90 days. In the much poorer Bihar in the north-east, on the other hand, the program reaches significantly fewer households, who also only work an average of 28 days.

In the Ministry of Rural Development, which is responsible for the employment guarantee, the low participation is explained, among other things, by a lack of need. Since participation in the program is based on the fact that people present themselves to the authorities on their own initiative, a lack of or declining interest is considered a success in case of doubt. A common interpretation is that the families are then no longer dependent on state-sponsored work. Because another goal of the law and the subsidized work is to improve rural infrastructure, soil quality, water supply and increase agricultural productivity. From the Ministry's point of view, it is already successful in this regard. In the long term, it is hoped, this mechanism will abolish the employment program itself.

However, these bright future prospects have little in common with the continuing extreme poverty and lack of prospects in India's rural regions. Because what keeps people from working in the program is not, as the ministry assumes, increased agricultural productivity, but, conversely, the deterrence through late wage payments, some of which are still outstanding after years.[6] This lack of reliability drives day laborers back into the arms of exploitative employers - they pay less, but daily.

And even if agricultural productivity increases, not everyone will benefit to the same extent. Many improvements, such as water and soil quality, can only benefit directly those who also own land and cattle. The landless workers, who make up almost 15 percent of the rural population, are left with only the wages from the employment program, which, however, have so far not kept pace with the rapidly rising food prices. For example, in December 2010, after a bad harvest, the price of onions (an Indian staple food) doubled within a week. There were also extreme price increases for grain, pulses, potatoes and other vegetables in the past year.

Panchayati Raj: The struggle for village self-government

“Government programs come and go,” says a landless worker, but her situation has not changed in the past ten years. This statement is an example of the resignation of parts of the rural population who feel that their needs and interests are not represented by governments and administrations. The law should not only create employment opportunities, but also bring about further changes: The declared aim is to strengthen the village democratic structures, the Panchayati Raj institutions. To this end, the village community should dispose of part of the funds at the local level and, for example, decide which work will be carried out within the framework of the program. Another instrument to promote participation and transparency are the so-called social audits, in which the village community can demand the disclosure of all relevant data of the employment program and check this in a collective discussion. Two public audits are planned per year.

The legal right to work has also substantially strengthened the position of the individual vis-à-vis the local administration. Together with the principle of self-registration, this contributes significantly to the containment of clientelistic practice in accessing social benefits. However, the hope that the law could help give more weight to the voice of the disadvantaged rural population has so far not been fully fulfilled. Because in many places it is still the clique of locally powerful castes and clans who decide instead of the village community. The decision-making options of the population are also limited by the regional administration, which continues to see itself as the actual decision-making body and acts accordingly. In addition, the audits do not take place nationwide or regularly, and there are problems with the publication of the program data and documents.

For these reasons, the goal of consolidating Indian democracy in the villages - and thus at its roots - has so far not been achieved in many places. At the same time, however, it must be stated that this claim is a huge challenge, since the Indian village only partially corresponds to the idealized ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. In terms of their social and administrative structure, the villages often resemble the “caves of vice”, in other words: of inequality and exploitation, as Gandhi's critic B. R. Ambedkar called them.

Caste and Gender - Traditions of Inequality

The exclusion of parts of the population criticized by Ambedkar because of their caste membership and the widespread discrimination against women have a long tradition in India. The law and its central component, the employment program, pursue the goal of countering the resulting inequalities, particularly with regard to access to the labor market. A central feature is that members of all population groups, genders, castes and religions have equal access to the program, and that in principle they work together on the same construction sites and receive the same wages. This is a pioneering step forward that breaks with the discrimination practiced in large parts of India. Collaborative work therefore also has the potential to break down prejudices and strengthen local cohesion.

According to the legal requirements, women must make up at least one third of the employees in the program. In order to facilitate the participation of mothers with small children, childcare is planned as soon as at least five children under the age of six come to work with their mothers. The traditionally disadvantaged groups of the formerly untouchables (Dalits) and the indigenous population (Adivasi) are to be supported by the fact that measures such as irrigation and well construction may be carried out on their land, i.e. one deviates in their favor from the principle according to this In principle, work within the framework of the program may only be carried out on public land.

At the same time, the program is facing major social challenges, as the traditions of inequality are deeply anchored in India. The hierarchical, structured caste system remains a central source of inequality. It is a basic component of Hinduism, to which over 80 percent of the Indian population feel they belong. Caste membership is hereditary and unchangeable. The duties assigned to a caste determine everyday life, and only their fulfillment offers a long-term prospect of rebirth in a higher caste. At the bottom of the caste hierarchy are the casteless, who have been affected by the most extreme form of economic and social exclusion, the stigma of untouchability.[7]

Historically, the caste is decisive for the choice of profession and partner, it determines social prestige, educational opportunities and place of residence. Castes, however, have in some ways declined in importance over the past 150 years. On the one hand, their economic importance was relativized by colonization. The colonial companies made no distinction between the castes in their search for workers and thus offered members of the lower castes and casteless people in particular the opportunity to find employment beyond the traditionally assigned professions and to advance socially. At the same time, however, industrialization also led to the dissolution of the village division of labor and the loss of traditional employment opportunities. Working in colonial companies was therefore also an expression of new forms of economic exploitation.

Second, the importance of castes in general - and the Dalits in particular - has been called into question by Indian independence. The status of untouchability was formally abolished with the entry into force of the Indian constitution. For educational institutions and the public service, quota regulations for previously untouchables were introduced. There were also support measures for the economically and socially excluded group of the indigenous population. But even 60 years after Indian independence, there is still a large discrepancy between political and legal equality and ongoing social inequality.

This also applies to discrimination against women. It has long been known that women and girls in India are far more often not literate than their male peers and are also more often malnourished. In addition, there is the abortion of female fetuses: Despite the ban, specific gender determination is widespread in parts of northern and western India and the number of girls born is significantly lower than in international comparison.[8]

The economic integration of women within the framework of the rural employment guarantee can therefore be seen as a considerable success. In extremely patriarchal areas, it is often the first job that women do outside the home or in their own field. For them, this is an important step towards greater independence and freedom. Overall, the quota for women has been exceeded by a third since the start of the program; last year the proportion of women was even 48 percent. One reason for the persistently high participation of women is the principle of equal pay, which closes the usual pay gap between the sexes.[9]

Members of the Dalits and Adivasi together make up 52 percent of the workforce in the program. However, both groups made hardly any use of the opportunity to work on their land. This is mainly because they own very little land due to their historical disadvantage - and the program does not address this inequality.

Government policy between economic development and poverty reduction

Despite this mixed record, the rural employment guarantee has won popular support. This approval formed the basis for the Congress party's victory in the last general election in 2009, whereby Manmohan Singh, the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru, was re-elected after a full term.

The government likes to cite the successes of the employment guarantee, the implementation of further parts of the National Common Minimum Program, the passing of laws on the right to information, education and school lunches as successes of its inclusive growth strategy.However, if you take a closer look, it becomes apparent that these initiatives are not primarily due to the commitment of the Indian government, but rather to court decisions or political campaigns by extra-parliamentary groups or opposition parties.
At the same time it is evident that the industrial, agricultural and trade policies currently being pursued by the federal government undermine the proclaimed goals of inclusive growth. In the name of foreign direct investment and industrialization, the rights of the indigenous population are massively violated as soon as mineral resources are discovered under their residential areas.[10] And the creation of special economic and industrial zones in the hinterland permanently reduces the fertile land, while investors move on as soon as the tax breaks that once lured them expire.

Parts of the agricultural and trade policy cause further disadvantages for the rural population in the agricultural sector, which the statutory employment guarantee should help. For example, in the western state of Maharashtra, the capping limits for land ownership have been lifted. The result: when indebted farmers sell their land and henceforth have to make ends meet as day laborers, agricultural corporations buy up their land. To make matters worse, the western industrialized countries are currently massively promoting free trade agreements with which they would gain influence on the Indian market, which is dominated by small farmers. The European Union is aiming for such an agreement, which will enable it to import highly subsidized food, by the end of this year.

Modernization policy in urban areas also harbors disadvantages for the lower social classes. The expansion of the transport infrastructure and the improvement of water quality and waste disposal are undoubtedly necessary in the Indian megacities. But the granting of waste disposal licenses to multinational corporations robs garbage collectors of their livelihood. The displacement of street vendors and open markets creates more space for the cars of the middle and upper classes, but at the same time deprives many people of the basis of their income. There are no strategies for further training or for the creation of alternative employment opportunities for those “released” in this way.

Growth and poverty

If you focus on these contradictions in government policy, it turns out that the goal of inclusive growth has so far been missed. That too has a tradition in India: the demand for political self-determination was already linked in the independence movement against the British colonial rulers with the claim for a fairer distribution of economic income. Political self-determination was the only way to lift the majority of Indians out of poverty, it was said at the time. But even after 60 years of democracy, many Indians are poor and only marginally involved in political decisions. Not least for this reason, a policy of social equilibrium could not prevail then as it is today.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act makes a start to overcoming the existing divisions by focusing on employment, but also on democratic participation and equality. The program is also very successful in terms of its claim to reduce rural exodus. A consistent and comprehensive implementation of the program would have the potential to reduce social divisions and to distribute growing prosperity more fairly.

The biggest problem remains that overall government policy is by no means consistently aimed at a more equitable distribution of goods, services and resources. On the contrary, many other aspects of politics contradict the objectives of the rural employment guarantee, which is also inadequately implemented. As a result, the difference between rich and poor continues to grow; the gap between the few well-paid high-tech jobs in urban areas and subsistence farming is widening. The bottom line remains: Despite the rural employment guarantee, the Indian economic growth miracle does not lead to a substantial reduction in the existing inequalities - inclusive growth looks different.

[1] This calculation is based on the international poverty line of US $ 1.25 purchasing power per person per day in 2005. The Indian calculation of the poverty line deviates from this and is currently 12 rupees for rural areas and 18 rupees in cities; See Himanshu, Towards New Poverty Lines for India, in: "Economic and Political Weekly", 2.1.2010, pp. 38-48.

[2] This split was treated literarily in the novel "The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize.

[3] Cf. Fabian Scheidler, India: The price of growth, in: “Blätter”, 3/2011, pp. 109-118; Praveen Jha and Mario Negre, The Price of Miracles. India between economic ascent and social decline, in: "Blätter", 10/2007, pp. 1245-1255.

[4] According to the CMP, the employment guarantee should apply to the rural population, poor city dwellers and the lower middle class; So far, the guarantee has only been legally implemented for the first group.

[6] There was a lot of corruption in the beginning due to the cash payment of wages. In response to this, wages have only been transferred to banks or post offices since 2009. The number of newly opened bank accounts in rural areas then multiplied. However, the problem of long waiting times for wages has not yet been resolved across the board.

[7] See also John P. Neelsen, India - World Power and Periphery, in: "Blätter", 11/2005, pp. 1370-1380.

[8] In 2001 there were only 92.7 girls for every 100 boys under the age of six in India, in Delhi it was 86.6 and in Punjab only 78.9 (for comparison: in Germany the ratio was 94.8). Amartya Sen has dealt with the phenomenon of the "missing women" in various publications, see e.g. ders., The argumentative Indian, London 2005, p. 220 ff.

[9] More information on the situation of women in the program is available from Rebecca Holmes, Nidhi Sadana and Saswatee Rath, Gendered risks, poverty and vulnerability in India. Overseas Development Institute and Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, London and New Delhi; and Ashok Pankaj and Rukmini Tankha, Empowerment Effects of the NREGS on Women Workers: A Study in Four States, in: "Economic & Political Weekly", 30/2010, pp. 45-55.

[10] One example is the POSCO plant in Orissa; see Tusha Mittal, Whose steel? Who's stealing? In: "Tehelka Magazine", January 11, 2010.