Centre for Development Economics
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics


The Non-Labouring Poor, Still Beyond The Pale


Jan Breman

Emeritus Professor, University of Amsterdam

Friday, 25th October 2013 at 3:00 PM

Venue : Seminar Room (First Floor)
Department of Economics, Delhi School of Economics

All are cordially invited


The moral standard of state and society can be deduced from the way people are helped who cannot help themselves, because they are not productive anymore and are without support. Missing the means for self-providence includes all those among the labouring poor who are disabled either because of old age, defective health or other handicaps that prevent them for working for their livelihood. With the introduction of the Informal Workers’ Social Security Act the Government of India seems to have acknowledged that people without means of livelihood are entitled to state provisions if they have lost their labour power to gain an income. Gandhi, as the founding father of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad which emerged as the leading trade union in colonial India, insisted that the worker’s pay should be enough for the basic needs of his famly. His demand for a fair wage included social care provisions such as retirement benefits, health insurance as well as a dearness allowance to compensate for the rising cost of living. Will his insistence on payment of a decent and just wage be part of the packet with which Gandhi is going to become the brand for selling India in the global market? Going by the practices in the countryside of south Gujarat I have my doubts. The name of the father of the nation may become the country’s sales pitch in the world at large but that does not mean that his ideas for a fair deal to labour have suddenly found favour in the political circles that want India to shine.

Given the excessively low price of labour, the distribution of cheap grain has proved an important way by which to prevent further intensification of economic improvidence due to the spiraling cost of living. Nearly four decades ago, and in reaction to reports drawing attention to the increasing frequency of clashes between landowners and landless, the Gujarat government decided to introduce various social insurance and welfare schemes aimed at reducing the threat to the survival of the most vulnerable segment of the workforce. These schemes were announced as an initial step towards a more comprehensive system of social protection. The greatest political capital was made out of the state pension for which old and disabled agricultural workers qualified who lived in destitution. In 1981 the then Congress government launched this scheme as an election stunt. A few years later, it declared that the state pension would be paid to all aged and handicapped workers without adult children and with no means of their own. When I came back to the villages of my research in 1986-7 for a new round of fieldwork, I found that only one old woman had once been favoured with payment of this benefit, a one-time gesture which she and others, including the official in charge, saw as an inexplicable and unrepeatable stroke of luck rather than a right she could claim in future.


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