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Perry Anderson

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„In 2005, when Congress still depended on Communist votes for a majority in Parliament, a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was passed, assuring any household in the countryside a hundred days labour a year at the legal minimum wage on public works, with at least a third of these jobs for women. It is work for pay, rather than a direct cash transfer scheme as in Brazil, to minimize the danger of money going to those who are not actually the poor, and so ensure it reaches only those willing to do the work. Denounced by all right-thinking opinion as debilitating charity behind a façade of make-work, it was greeted by the middle-class like ‘a wet dog at a glamorous party’, in the words of one of its architects, the Belgian-Indian economist Jean Drèze. Unlike the Bolsa Família in Brazil, the application of NREGA was left to state governments rather than the centre, so its impact has been very uneven and incomplete, wages often paid lower than the legal minimum, for days many fewer than a hundred.75 Works performed are not always durable, and as with all other social programmes in India, funds are liable to local malversation. But in scale NREGA now represents the largest entitlement programme in the world, reaching some 40 million rural households, a quarter of the total in the country. Over half of these dalit or adivasi, and 48 per cent of its beneficiaries are women – double their share of casual labour in the private sector. Such is the demand for employment by NREGA in the countryside that it far outruns supply. A National Survey Sample for 2009–2010 has revealed that 45 per cent of all rural households wanted the work it offers, of whom only 56 per cent got it.76 What NREGA has started to do, in the formulation Drèze has taken from Ambedkar, is break the dictatorship of the private employer in the countryside, helping by its example to raise wages even of non-recipients. Since inception, its annual cost has risen from $2.5 to over $8 billion, a token of its popularity. This remains less than 1 per cent of GDP, and the great majority of rural labourers in the private sector are still not paid the minimum wage due them. Conceived outside the party system, and accepted by Congress only when it had little expectation of winning the elections of 2004, the Act eventually had such popular demand behind it that the Lok Sabha adopted it nem con. Three years later, with typical dishonesty, the Manmohan regime renamed it as ‘Gandhian’ to fool the masses that Congress inspired it.“

— Perry Anderson, The Indian Ideology

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