When India achieved freedom 59 years ago, it was not just a country or its people that were liberated. India’s freedom was quickly followed by freedom for 45 other countries, marking the end of colonialism. When India’s Green Revolution doubled the country’s food production within 10 years, breaking its dependence on foreign food aid and achieving food self-sufficiency, it was not just India that overcame food deficits. In the following years the world as a whole has become food self-sufficient. Still the problem of food security and poverty remain because many people lack the purchasing power to procure sufficient food for their families. Gainful employment is an essential condition for achieving food security and eradicating poverty.
In this context, the commitment of the Government of India to guarantee the right to employment and the launching of the Employment Guarantee Act in October 2004 represent a pioneering initiative that will have immense ramifications around the world in years to come. It will compel the advanced industrialized nations to recognize employment as a fundamental human right and other developing countries to take comparable efforts to eradicate poverty.
Ensuring employment for the economically weakest sections of the population will have a multiplier effect that ripples through the whole economy, stimulating higher rates of growth and higher incomes all around. More importantly, it will attack the root causes of violence and terrorism in Indian society and provide a stable basis for more rapid social advancement. Expectations are rising everywhere. When higher expectations are not matched by greater opportunities, frustration sets in, awakening social unrest and violence. Unemployment is a root cause of violence in the human heart. Guaranteed employment will dry up the springs of violence at their source.
A guarantee implies not merely an opportunity or even a right, but also assured and secure possession of what is guaranteed. Gaining freedom from colonial rule is far easier than achieving prosperity. Government can wage war or maintain law and order, but it cannot guarantee a peaceful and prosperous life for all its citizens. In a democracy, even waging war requires the active support of the population. Peace and prosperity are wider goals beyond the power of any government. They depend on a determined effort of the society-as-a-whole. Similarly, government can promote strategies for full employment, but can it really guarantee employment to all citizens?
If any country is in a position to offer such a guarantee, surely it is one of the most advanced industrialized countries. Even for them, the task would be challenging. Yet, that does not mean India’s effort it doomed to failure. In the 19th Century, it was expected that Marxism would take root in Britain, where the labor movement was most organized. Yet it was Soviet Russia that accepted and projected the values of socialism so powerfully that the rest of the world was forced to adopt them in essence.
Fulfillment of this commitment is fraught with dangers. The Government of India has taken upon itself an evolutionary goal. If legislation is passed guaranteeing the right to employment, it will dramatically raise expectations of what government should deliver, create impatience and unrest, and become an open invitation to revolution. Once people’s rights are granted in principle, they have a way of forcefully demanding their fulfillment in practice. To deliver on these promises will require an unprecedented level of courage, efficiency and transparency. Failure to deliver could threaten the very fabric of Indian democracy.
The functioning of the machinery of government is adequate to achieve this or any other development objective requiring timely, efficient and cost effective action. It is not that it is constitutionally incapable of the necessary effort. On the contrary, it has demonstrated that wherever the sense of importance and urgency is sufficiently recognized, government is capable of rapid, highly efficient initiative. The real problem is in generating and translating that sense of importance and urgency through the normal bureaucratic machinery of government. Wherever government, or rather the society, has succeeded in recent times in making a rapid, significant advancement, it has been done by overcoming government interference or by side-stepping its bureaucratic stranglehold in some manner. These are social achievements resulting from the overwhelming power and determination of the society to tap an opportunity. There is little reason to believe that it will be different with regard to implementing the Employment Guarantee Scheme.
The Government’s commitment to guarantee employment is itself a monumental step, because in a democratic context, enshrining that commitment as law will generate a powerful swell of public opinion demanding its immediate and proper implementation. But the ability of Government to make good on this commitment requires an administrative initiative commensurate in vision and courage. That initiative must compel the administrative to immediate and effective action. The only solution would be to introduce stringent measures—confined to the narrow issue of employment—that would compel the machinery of government to act with the necessary speed, efficiency and discipline required for effective action. The programme can best be implemented through a non-political, administrative emergency that compels the administration to deliver what the political leaders of the country have committed to the people.
India’s leaders have once again displayed courage and vision, raising humanity’s vision and pointing to a better future for the whole world. The spirit of India once again leads the way in charting out new possibility, new hopes, and new freedoms for the world.