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The UPA has done well to bring rights-based social welfare schemes to the forefront.
All opinion polls suggest that the UPA has only a few weeks left in office. After 10 years as prime minister — this gives him the third position in terms of longevity as head of government after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi — what is going through Manmohan Singh’s mind as he contemplates retirement from public life? What legacy will he look back on with a sense of achievement? Perhaps more importantly, what will history rate as his government’s biggest accomplishments?
Singh himself is supposed to have said that he counts the Indo-US nuclear deal as one of his finest achievements. This was one of the few occasions when he dug in his heels and refused to cow down, despite strong opposition from both within the party and outside. However, while the nuclear deal was a bitterly controversial issue during the early days of the first UPA government, it is debatable whether this will occupy more than a footnote in history books.
There is little doubt that the distinguishing feature of the UPA’s 10-year rule has been the initiation of legislation incorporating rights-based social welfare measures. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was the flagship programme of the first UPA government. The act provided every rural household the right to 100 days of employment at the prevailing minimum wage in any financial year.
Subsequently, the MGNREGA wage has been revised upwards. The strategy of reducing rural poverty through employment generation and simultaneously creating durable assets has had a long history in India. What was different about the MGNREGA was that it guaranteed employment as a legal right.
The food security law, passed in September 2013, provides 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population the legal right to stipulated quantities of foodgrains at subsidised prices. Several state as well as successive Central governments have been providing subsidised food through the public distribution system (PDS) for several decades. So, like MGNREGA, the novel feature of the law was that it endowed the target beneficiaries with a legal right. The flip side of the coin was that this put pressure on the government to deliver the promised quantities of food.
The two acts have been amongst the most important pieces of legislation in several decades. Not surprisingly, they generated a great deal of heated debate. Detractors have labelled them acts of sheer folly and blatantly populist. They claim that the “huge” expenditure required to fulfil the continued…