Towards a Peoples' Movement for a Universal Social Security in India
 
It is widely recognised that, 'social security' constitutes a 'basic human right' and is enshrined in major international human rights instruments. The overall spirit of the Constitution of India favours social security measures to workers. However, these solemn commitments have remained largely on paper and the Indian State has miserably failed in providing universal social security to its workers and people. 

Worse, the national planning and economic development pursued by the Government of India since its independence promoted a dual system of social security in India, one for the industrial workers and another for those with not so clearly defined employer-employee relationship. At various points of time, to deny universalisation of social security, the ruling classes of India used arguments that 'there is no wealth to divide',  'most of the workers are in self-employed and informal categories' and  'the workers are poor'. Strangely, poverty of workers has been used as an argument against institutionalising a measure that would have helped in combating poverty and in promoting distributive justice.
The Indian ruling classes showed the audacity to throw crumbs of charity to 90% of Indian workers in the form of a large number of disparate and poorly organised schemes and programmes to provide social assistance to specific categories of poor, purported to generate employment during slack seasons and droughts, improve access of the poor to land and other productive assets etc. Most social protection and poverty alleviation schemes are directed at the below the poverty line (BPL) population as a second level of targeting, the first being exclusivity and perceived vulnerability of certain groups of economic actors or non-actors, imposing on the recipients a double ignominy. These are not justiciable rights of the recipients. These schemes are changed frequently, presumably based on bureaucratic imperatives or political exigencies, leaving the beneficiaries confused. For most schemes there are no adequate budgetary allocations. All these measures have neither addressed absolute poverty in India nor helped in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.
This dualistic social security system served another political function, of consolidating a divided society - between those who hold formal jobs with full social security coverage and the rest of the population. This was also a clever and a pre-emptive move by the elite to create a chasm between working population and build a culture of subservience among the targeted poor by throwing welfare schemes at them.
In a capitalist society, social security provisions also perform the task of income distribution, though at a minimum level. But from the very beginning, India's political elite resisted distribution of wealth. The people of India created wealth and India is now the fourth largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity. But various studies have shown that India's income inequality, the difference in income between the rich and the poor, has been increasing, especially since 1991, when India opted for liberalisation of its economy. According to a UN classification, India is 72nd in income inequality among the nations of the world.

With globalisation comes the debate on the effectiveness of social security systems, not only in the poor and developing countries but also in the advanced capitalist countries. The well-established social security systems in the industrialised countries, based on defined, lifelong employment and contributions are reportedly facing challenges consequent to increase in the number of pensioners compared to new entrants to jobs and the changes that are effected by globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation on business processes and nature of employment. The government is abdicating its responsibility to raise revenues and administer income distribution functions. Social security systems are being privatised.
India is faced with the biggest challenges of extending the social security benefits to the excluded 93% of its workforce, eliminating hunger from its 350 million to 400 million people and ensuring distribution of the wealth being generated. Unfortunately, the effort so far has been to create 'social safety nets' to cushion the impoverishment and prevent an organised backlash by way of refusing to extend the established social security benefits to the rest of the workforce and by continuing with targeted welfare programmes.
Consequently, when the Government of India passed the 'Unorganised Workers Social Security Act' (UWSSA) on December 17, 2008 supposedly for the benefit of about 423 million unorganised workers and their dependents, it fell short of everything that was required. The structural gaps and inadequacies made it totally ineffective. The Act does not define social security. Social security schemes are not included as part of the body of the Act, implying that they can be changed without discussion in Parliament, thereby denying the workers the benefit of consistency and justiciability. Unemployment and livelihood rights are not covered under the Act. It diluted the existing Acts such as the Maternity Benefit Act and the Workmen's Compensation Act. Most importantly, it is premised on principles of targeting and exclusion because its provisions, largely, are restricted to BPL workers and do not address social inclusion and gender equity vis-a-vis social security to dalits, adivasis and women. The Act did not have a financial memorandum attached to it.
India's social security system for the 'industrial workers' is the result of massive movements of industrial workers in the first half of the twentieth century. In the first half of twenty-first century, when India is expecting rapid economic growth, only such a massive movement by the excluded workers will ensure distribution of income. All generates the wealth, but the economic and political powers restrict it to be enjoyed by a few. The poor and the vulnerable should raise their voice and demand a legitimate share of the wealth. In the process, the movement should resist targeted schemes and welfare measures and demand universal social security as a right.
The ILO has proposed the idea of 'a social protection floor', which is a basic set of essential social transfers, in cash and in kind, to provide a minimum income and livelihood security for poor and vulnerable populations and to facilitate access to essential services, such as health care. The ILO has established that even least developed countries can afford 'a social protection floor', though its proposal falls within the targeted framework of social security.
The idea of basic income guarantee as an alternative to targetted, means tested and employer-employee relationship based social security system has great relevance in Indian context. A basic income is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. Basic income is a guarantee by the State and not a charity. It takes away the economic and social stigma attached to targeted welfare systems, avoids huge expenses on administration and prevalence of corruption as well as being paternalistic towards the issue of social inclusion. It will also overcome the constraint of undefinable employer-employee relationships in informal set ups and the predominance of self-employment in economic activities.
These are some of the issues that would be deliberated at the National Convention on Social Security for Unorganised Workers, organised by ‘Social Security Now’ (SSN) from January 8-10, 2009, Patna, Bihar.

 

 

 
 

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