Volume 4 Issue 14 - July 15, 2006

N.R.E.G.A. – Work for all, but none for the disabled!

The Government of India passed the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (N.R.E.G.A.), in September 2005. It provides legal guarantee of a hundred days of employment in a financial year to adult members of a rural household. In this undoubtedly most ambitious programme to address rural poverty and empower the rural poor, the Government has once again failed to consider the most vulnerable population of disabled people says Chitra S. Shankar.

It is a well known fact that over 75 per cent of the Indian population is rural. Despite a growing economy, a majority of the people in rural areas live below the poverty line, as employment opportunities are hard to come by. Thus, N.R.E.G.A. aims to end food insecurity, empower village communities, and create useful assets in rural areas. The approach is rights-based as the assumption here is that every adult has a right to basic employment opportunities at the statutory minimum wage. Under this scheme, one member of every rural household is guaranteed 100 days of work at the minimum wage of Rs. 60 a day. All rural poor, immaterial of whether they are below the poverty line or not, are eligible to apply. One-third of the beneficiaries should be women. This scheme, if properly implemented, will go a long way in alleviating rural poverty.

While appreciating the genuine concerns and efforts of the Government to ensure employment, food and livelihood security for its rural citizens with the enactment of N.R.E.G.A., it is distressing to see that people with disabilities, who constitute the most vulnerable and poorest of the poor segment of society, have been completely left out of the scheme of things.

It can be stated with conviction that all the good work will come to naught, as the goal of poverty eradication cannot be achieved if disabled people who constitute 5-6 per cent of the total population of India are ignored or left out. If figures are indicative of the status of any section of society, then disabled people constitute 20 per cent of the worlds poorest of the poor, and over 80 per cent of the 70 million disabled people live in rural India - well below the poverty line. It is an accepted fact that there is a two-way relationship between disability and poverty. Its a vicious circle where poverty leads to disability because of the living conditions, and in turn disability leads to more poverty due to limited opportunities and discrimination at all levels.

Ten years after the Disability Act, implementation in critical areas such as education, employment and barrier-free access remains at zero level. The economic empowerment of disabled people is key to independent living and sustainable livelihoods. Therefore, mainstreaming of disability into development projects is crucial. It is now an accepted position that disability has to be a component of all development programmes. In line with this thinking, the Tenth Plan also advocated the introduction of a Component Plan for the Disabled in the budget of all concerned Ministries/Departments in order to ensure a regular flow of funds for Schemes/Programmes for the empowerment of disabled people.

Moreover, the Disability Act mandates a three per cent reservation in all areas of activity, and in Chapter VI on Employment (Section 40) it clearly states: The appropriate Governments and local authorities shall reserve not less than three per cent in all poverty alleviation schemes for the benefit of persons with disabilities. Despite this specific legal provision, it is highly surprising and shocking to see that the Ministry of Rural Development has not given any thought to this segment of society in one of its most innovative programmes on poverty eradication.

But, as if to make up for this glaring lapse, the Government has incorporated a statement under Chapter 4 on Registration & Employment (Section 4.6; Sub-section 4.6.10) in its Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the N.R.E.G.S. It states that, If a rural disabled person applies for work, work suitable to his/her ability and qualifications will have to be given. This may also be in the form of services that are identified as integral to the programme. Provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995, will be kept in view and implemented.

This guideline, if understood in the right spirit and perspective, can facilitate assured employment for the rural disabled people. While the onus, in the first instance, is on disabled people to apply for jobs, the responsibility to then provide the right kind of employment lies with the implementing agency at the grass root level. But whether these guidelines will be followed by the implementing agencies in all states, or how far they will be binding to hold the Government legally responsible for providing employment to disabled people in rural areas, is yet unknown.

A look at the funding pattern of N.R.E.G.S. will give us a picture of the magnitude of this ambitious programme. The project has been conceived with an annual budget of Rs. 40000 crores. If the component on disability is truly included, and the three per cent quota is implemented, the funds for disabled people under the scheme would be a whopping Rs. 1200 crores per annum! Unquestionably, N.R.E.G.S. has the potential to go a long way in mitigating poverty among the rural disabled.

To initiate the process of including disability in N.R.E.G.S., K.R. Rajendra, Regional Representative, Leonard Cheshire International, South Asia, represented the disability sector at the two-day national level consultative process organised by the Administrative Reforms Commission (A.R.C.). The objective of the Consultation was to strengthen accountability, transparency and monitoring of N.R.E.G.S. The A.R.C. has come up with some major path-breaking recommendations such as earmarking not less than three per cent of the resources at the block level for disabled people; ensuring that widows, disabled siblings and each disabled adult are counted as single family household so that they get an additional 100 days of employment guarantee; including disabled people in administrative and supervisory roles at district, panchayat and block level; and conducting social audits to measure and evaluate inclusion of different classes of people on a periodic basis.

To galvanise the disability sector and to create greater awareness on this issue, Leonard Cheshire International (L.C.I.), Handicap International, Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme and Department for International Development (D.F.I.D.) organised a two day National Consultation on N.R.E.G.S. & Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in New Delhi recently. Sixty participants from 15 states attended and many issues concerning the inclusion of disabled people in N.R.E.G.S. were raised and strategies discussed. At the end of the Consultation, the house resolved to submit a Memorandum known as Delhi Declaration to the Prime Minister of India for perusal and positive action. The full text of the Memorandum can be accessed here.

Now the onus is on the disability sector and other stakeholders to ensure that the three per cent quota is implemented in N.R.E.G.S. The disability sector also needs to actively ensure that all this information is properly disseminated amongst the rural disabled population. The right kind of projects and jobs need to be identified within the scheme. Further, there is an urgent need for sensitisation of key officials at the district, block as well as panchayat level, on issues related to disability, poverty and rural development.

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