Livelihoods: the man in the street

Jeevika, an arm of the Centre for Civil Society (an NGO) last week held a documentary film competition and panel discussion on livelihoods. A few days earlier, economist Jagdish Bhagwati debated CPM stalwart Sitaram Yechhuri on labour reform and its livelihood implications. I was struck by how much more relevant the Jeevika event was than the more celebrated debate.

The Bhagwati-Yechhuri debate on labour reform related mainly to organised labour, which accounts for only 8% of workers. This includes unionised workers, the storm troopers of the CPM. So, Yechhury sought to protect this labour aristocracy, while Bhagwati sought to de-protect it in order to encourage job creation for those outside the aristocracy. But Jeevika showed that the biggest livelihood issues are about rural and municipal reforms.

More than 60% of our workforce is still in agriculture. Water is the life-blood of agriculture, but its availability is falling every day, thanks to free farm power that encourages over-irrigation and hence empties aquifers.

In Rajasthan, the Tarun Bharat Sangh headed by Rajender Singh has restored aquifers by constructing 8,600 tanks, ponds and check dams, and won the Magsaysay Prize for this. Yet Singh says that every tank and pond he built violated the Irrigation and Drainage Act, the Wildlife Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act. These Acts made the building of water tanks a government monopoly, yet the callous government never built any tanks. So entire districts became Dark Zones (with no groundwater), agriculture wilted, and villagers migrated for survival. Risking constant threats of imprisonment, Rajender Singh and his colleagues nevertheless built the 8,600 tanks. This technically criminal activity restored the water table to such an extent that the affected areas have today been declared White Zones (no water shortage), agriculture is flourishing again, and so local livelihoods are booming.

This shows how government rules, supposedly in the public interest, are in practice the greatest hurdles to poor people obtaining a living. Current rules make it a crime for a farmer to sell vegetables to you or me: the law says he must sell it only in a government mandi. If he takes his produce across a state boundary to get a better price he may be violating the Essential Commodities Act and Mandi Act. These regulations can have a more debilitating impact on livelihoods than industrial labour laws.

The late Bharat Ram of DCM told me how he once tried to build rural roads to develop villages in the catchment area of his sugar factory in Uttar Pradesh. The PWD immediately threatened him with arrest for daring to build roads, which were a government monopoly.

Worse are municipal regulations that make most economic activity in cities illegal. Madhu Kishwar’s researches as well as Jeevika’s Livelihood Fact Sheet say that Delhi has five lakh cycle rickshaws, of which only 75,000 have municipal licences. The rest are illegal, and harassed by the police for bribes (estimated at Rs 8 crore per month). The very existence of so many rickshaws shows that they meet consumer needs, apart from creating livelihoods. Instead of encouraging this, the municipality has criminalized them.

Mumbai has four lakh street hawkers, but only 14,000 are officially licensed. Delhi has over six lakh street hawkers, but only 5% of them have municipal licences. Hawkers are willing to pay for licences, some offering Rs 20,000. Alas, the response of the state is to imprison them and deny citizens the services the hawkers provide.

Now, cities need regulations that provide space for pedestrians and traffic. Hawkers and rickshaws cannot occupy every square inch of space. But what sort of city planners do we have who create plans and rules that hopelessly underestimate how much commercial or transport space is needed by expanding cities, and fail to provide spaces for future expansion? Justice would be better served if the city planners were jailed rather than hawkers. The best short-term remedy might be to convert some roads into pedestrian/hawker areas, and build elevated roads to take the diverted traffic.

Madhu Kishwar estimates that the total number of Delhi families dependent on hawking, cycyle rickshaws and ancillary activities may be 8 million, or two-thirds of the city population. Exaggerated estimate? Well, cut it by 50% or even 75%. This will still constitute the biggest job sector in Delhi. Contrary to common opinion, Delhi is not a city of bureaucrats, it is a city of hawkers and transport operators.

I support Bhagwati’s arguments for greater flexibility in labour laws to promote industrial employment. But even more strongly I favour municipal and state reforms that de-criminalise the livelihoods of the poor. Economic liberalisation should not be limited to big business. It needs to be extended to the sort of person who can truly be called the man in the street..

What do you think?