Providing employment guarantee in regions where the market fails to meet the demand for work at reasonable wages is a state responsibility. However,the present programme doesnt distinguish between regions where market wage rates are higher than the minimum wage rate and where lower. Obviously,its effectiveness will be limited. Moreover,the programme considers poor people as having only limbs and mouth but no head. If such was not the assumption,the programme would not focus only on physical labour. More than a century ago,after the Deccan riots,the British realised the need for food for work. Conceptually,we havent moved much since then. Ironically,India aspires to be a knowledge society,and rightly so. Yet,more than 250 million people are provided 100 days of employment in activities that dont draw upon resources poor people are rich in their knowledge,values and location-specific skills. There has never been a bigger effort to deskill society. Recently,there was news about diamond workers returning to their native villages,to dig earth under the employment guarantee programme.
There are a large number of schools that need vocational education,workshops that need skills upgrade and local resources that need value addition. This could be converted into a unique opportunity for transforming rural India. That will require faith in the knowledge and wisdom of people,although thats not easy these days.
I suggest that the employment guarantee programme be recast totally to generate an entrepreneurial revolution. Then we can dream of a day when the state will not have to provide menial employment since local enterprises will absorb labour. There are several levels at which changes are required to make this programme an unprecedented experiment to transform India. Millions of minds can be mapped besides mapping the physical,biological and other natural resources. At least for five days,250 million people will document various plants,minerals,soils,water and other resources and with their unique uses,wherever applicable. Village women know from which well they should fetch water if they have to cook dal,which takes longer otherwise. Mapping of biological resources is envisaged under Peoples Biodiversity Register,under the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA). The Register of other resources,including traditional knowledge about soil,mineral,climate change,etc,has been maintained by the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). Together,NBA and NIF can map the whole country in a few years time and then
periodically update this knowledge base through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This knowledge will become available for value addition and entrepreneurial exploration.
Outstanding knowledge so documented can be pooled to develop new products and services for which social venture funds can be set up in each district to promote new enterprises. Even if most of the enterprises fail,people would learn to explore,experiment and innovate.
In different parts of India,people have myriad interpretations of Ramayan,Mahabharat and other epics. Numerous other tales exist among people of different faiths. Imagine a portal where recorded tales,songs,etc can be downloaded from in local languages. Not only will the Web get populated with local language content (very scarce today) but also a lot of latent talent will surface. Rendering these stories,recording and uploading them would be purposeful employment. One can make the site e-commerce enabled.
Crops,particularly minor millets grown in dry regions,are naturally rich in minerals found in such soil. Once nutriceutical qualities of such crops are characterised,these can command premium in the market. Using compost to grow such crops would be an added advantage. A whole range of activities is required for managing watersheds and manure development in dry regions. Such employment can require manual work,coupled with important technical knowledge.
Thousands of local varieties preserved in the National Gene Bank are supposed to have descriptive information about local uses of such varieties. However,the relevant column either doesnt exist in the descriptors of the gene bank or are blank. The employment guarantee programme can be used to generate such data from different households and put it in the gene bank. The food processing industry will get a fillip in the process.
The opportunity for recasting the employment programme
requires moving away from a colonial legacy of treating people as worthy of only menial labour. India deserves better. Indian labour deserves even better because it has such an intimate knowledge of resources,environment,climate change and other factors
The writer is at IIM,Ahmedabad,and is executive vice-chair of the National Innovation Foundation email@example.com