Guest post by ANANT MARINGANTI
Speaking of successful litigation, one day after what some may call the makings of India’s rainbow coalition celebrated the Delhi High Court’s final verdict in the Naz Foundation case, agricultural workers in Andhra Pradesh celebrated a favorable interim order in the APVVU (AP Agricultural Workers Union) case. Judge N.Ramamohana Rao of AP High Court ignored the Additional Solicitor General’s objections and ordered that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme wage rates be revised up from Rs 80 per day to the prevailing minimum wage of Rs 119 (111 and 112 in some areas) per day set by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. This will remain in force for 8 weeks. Of course, a favorable interim order does not imply that the final verdict will be favorable. But it bolsters the confidence of the contestants. It is a precious gift of time for solidarity building. And in this particular case, it will put an additional amount of a whopping Rs 31-40 per each of the 100 work days in a year in the hands of those availing work under the NREGA. It did not bring tears to the eyes, but in a general clime of judicial unresponsiveness to the claims of the poor it made many heave a sigh of relief.
Behind this petition are two related campaigns of national relevance – Minimum wages and NREGA rules. Minimum wages are to be statutorily revised periodically by state governments. However, in practice state governments often flout their norms. Further, in many cases, government agencies themselves pay less than minimum wages. These are rationalized on several grounds. For example those versed in the lore of the Right to Information Campaign remember that the long march to the RTI began in Rajasthan in the early 90s, when the activists of the nascent Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan discovered to their amazement that the state government refused to pay the statutory minimum wage on the ground that the quantum of developmental funds was limited. By paying less than minimum wage, the government agencies said they were able to spread the goodies to more workers. It took the good offices of a senior civil servant in Delhi to persuade the Rajasthan government that this was sheer folly. In some cases, governments argue that revising minimum wages will result in imbalances in the economy. Often, there is simply no explanation. Changes in governments, transfers of concerned officials, rain, elections… anything can obstruct the movement of files in government offices.
In this particular instance, the Government of Andhra Pradesh delayed revision of the minimum wage by three years for no apparent reason. That is, after the 2002 revision, the next revision was effected on October 17, 2008, instead of in 2005. But quite inexplicably, the NREGS fixed its wage rate in January 2009 at Rs 80 and refused to change it. When the APVVU petitioned the High Court through Advocate Balagopal, the Additional Solicitor General raised an objection – on the ground that to become eligible for the AP revised minimum wage rate of Rs 119; workers would have to work for 9 hours a day with half an hour of break.
This objection, frivolous on first sight, looks bizarre when set against the backdrop of the crisis that has slowly engulfed many rural households in Andhra Pradesh over the last couple of decades. Essentially, in all of the villages, the soft connective tissue of collective life, the seemingly insignificant local practices of cushioning vulnerable households have worn off leaving many individuals exposed to crises and some rapidly wasting away after a household crisis – which could be anything from a medical emergency to the marriage of a daughter. Itenerant activists in rural Andhra Pradesh occasionally come back to the city with doubt gnawing at their minds – may be what they just saw and heard of was a starvation death! But in the absence of a standard definition, local officials interpret starvation quite literally. If on examination the viscera reveal traces of a meal, if the pot in the house contains a few grains, or the unwashed plate in the house has an uneaten morsel in it… it is clearly not a starvation death. Tidbids like these are captured in death certificates, in muttered complaints and entreaties from old men and women, resigned angry gestures of young men. One picks them up along the development trail, they sit among other stories of heroism, outrage, pain, surprise and wonderment in the travel kit. But one has to be always watchful –pulling out one of these half burnt stories is a surefire way to kill a party. So, one puts them away, arranged carefully at the back of one’s mind.
Historically, farm workers in many unirrigated areas in Andhra Pradesh have been able to sustain themselves through multiple strategies. Some of them had access to small patches of land gained either through customary rights or through the land redistribution in the 70s. In these patches, they planted millets which required little water and just a little tending but ensured the bare minimum of nutrition for a few months of the year. This allowed able bodied workers to leave their families behind and go to the city to seek work. Also supporting the families during such times were the small ruminants – goats. It is a standing joke among veterinarians that goats are the mobile ATMs for the poor. Families knew how to pick up edible leaves from fields under cultivation. Occasionally they could collect firewood from some of the common lands. Over the last two decades much of this has disappeared. There is nothing very romantic about any of this. The past was certainly not golden. Just that pain and suffering comes via other routes now.
Beginning late 80s, a variety of wasteland development programs transformed the rural landscape, gradually supplanting collective (if somewhat differentiated by caste hierarchies) usufruct rights with individual commercial rights. In many villages dalits who had summer cropping rights to lakebeds saw a gradual divestment of these. Open forest patches turned into community forest groups which were delimited by user group or self help group formations and excluded non members. (User groups are those who have access to some means of production. Self Help Groups are those with none. ) Complicating the story further, although not exclusively, user group and self help group categories often mapped on to caste groupings. With donor organizations’ fixation with more bang for the buck, development agencies usually concentrated on the relatively resourceful caste groups which stood a better chance of showing results in terms of resource accumulation at the end of a project cycle.
Overall, although the actual composition varies from district to district, the rural agricultural worker category everywhere comprises some of the most vulnerable social groups. For such groups, an upward revision of minimum wage can mean the difference between starvation and malnutrition. By no stretch of imagination can an interim order that puts some money in the hands of the poor can be made comparable with the Naz Foundation’s victory. The AP High Court judge’s comments are not even particularly profound. He merely cautioned the Addl. Solicitor General in the most pedantic of words. “ A 7-hour workschedule is the yardstick for earning a minimum wage in a day. If the wages paid are less than proportionate it can lead to later day claims which can be very difficult to verify.” Yet, he put 30 rupees more at the end of a 7 hour long work day in the hands of agricultural workers. At least for eight weeks when it will be reviewed in light of fresh objections by the state and central governments. I feel like echoing sentiment of the day: yay! Time to celebrate. But to be honest, words are inadequate to describe what I feel.
Disclaimer: There is no other motive to setting the APVVU in juxtaposition to the Naz Foundation, save grabbing a little preordered attention value. I am as baffled as anyone else by the apparent incommensurality of the worlds inhabited by the two. I toyed with the idea of prefacing this story with something like – “I share the joy of the Naz Foundation victory, but …” OR “while we celebrate the joy of the Naz Foundation victory, let us also cheer for …” Both conjunctives ‘But’ and ‘Also’ sound dishonest. If there is a thread in the constitution through which I can connect the Naz Foundation verdict to the APVVU interim verdict, it is so thin that I cannot quite see it. I need that thread to fall in love with the Constitution again.