The latest National Statistical Office (NSO) survey on sanitation debunked the claims of an open defecation-free or ODF India made by the Centre’s flagship Swachh Bharat scheme, although it did record great progress in toilet access and use in rural areas. The results, released on Saturday, showed that about 71% of rural households had access to toilets at a time when the Centre was claiming 95% had access. On October 2, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that the whole country was ODF with complete access to toilets.
The survey was carried out between July and December 2018, with a reference date of October 1. Large States which had been declared ODF — that is, 100% access to toilets and 100% usage — even before the survey began included Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Others which were declared ODF during the survey included Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
According to the NSO, almost 42% of the rural households in Jharkhand had no access to a toilet at that time. In Tamil Nadu, the gap was 37%, followed by 34% in Rajasthan.
In Gujarat, which was one of the earliest States declared ODF, back in October 2017, almost a quarter of all rural households had no toilet access, the NSO data showed. The other major States listed also had significant gaps: Karnataka (30%), Madhya Pradesh (29%), Andhra Pradesh (22%) and Maharashtra (22%).
In the first week of October 2018, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Grameen) said 25 States and Union Territories had been declared ODF, while toilet access across the country touched 95%. In reality, the NSO said 28.7% of rural households had no toilet access at the time.
With regard to this data, the NSO noted, “There may be respondent bias in the reporting of access to latrine as question on benefits received by the households from government schemes was asked prior to the question on access of households to latrine.” The 71% access to toilets was still a significant improvement over the situation during the last survey period in 2012, when only 40% of the rural households had access to toilets.
The NSO’s statistics on toilet usage were also encouraging. It said 95% of people with access to toilets in rural India used them regularly, indicating that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s efforts to change behaviour had borne fruit. Only 3.5% of those with toilet access in rural India said they never used them.
‘Starvation wages’ continue
Accordingly, it was expected that the draft rules to the Act would be a ‘game-changer’ to the status quo as far as the lives of workers in the informal sector are concerned. It was believed that informal workers — they account for 93% of the total working population and contribute to over 60% of India’s GDP — had finally been acknowledged for their contributions to the nation-building process. But it was alleged that this would revive the crisis of the current economic slowdown, as the law proposes to increase income capacity and the purchasing power of the informal workers.
The proposed framework to determine wage will continue pushing ‘starvation wages’ in India. In view of this, the draft rules proposed were received with much hope by solidarity groups and worker collectives in India. It was expected that the rules would have considered the Supreme Court of India’s landmark jurisprudence in the ‘Raptakos’ case (1991) which advocated the concept and the right of a living wage.
However, and saddeningly, an in-depth reading of the draft rules does not match this glorious picture and has in effect, by creating a façade of false promises, struck a blow against the aspirations of millions of workers in the informal sector. This has been done by proposing the concept of a “floor wage: in the draft rules. In effect, this would mean that “starvation wages” which currently guarantees just ₹178 per day, will continue to exist and this government, like the ones preceding it will not go beyond “offering” “roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and housing”).
One can imagine the plight of workers by just looking at the recently reported “Consumer Expenditure Survey” result; it shows the average family expenditure in rural areas to be ₹83 per day, and in urban areas as ₹134. These figures show how workers will continue to live in exploitative and marginalised conditions, where their constitutional right to a fair wage will be infringed upon by employers and the state. This despite ‘Need-Based Minimum Wage’ being a Supreme Court jurisprudence (covering nutrition, health care, education, housing and provisions for old age as well). Therefore, in the draft rules, it should have been treated as a fundamental constitutional right for every citizen of India. On these lines, it is worth mentioning that the governments of Delhi and Kerala have not only managed to achieve a living wage jurisprudence in recent years but have also set the highest living wage in India (₹14,842 a month in Delhi and ₹600 a day in Kerala).
Archaic framework as reform
The concept and intention of floor wage in the draft rules only reiterate archaic principles which were echoed by the Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court in U. Unichoyi And Others vs. The State Of Kerala. Here the court remarked, “In an underdeveloped country which faces the problem of unemployment on a very large scale, it is not unlikely that labour may offer to work even on starvation wages”. Unfortunately, this situation still prevails in India where the labour market preys on the excess availability of workers for whom living a precarious life is their permanent mode of existence. In such a situation, they continue to be lured to work at their will on less than minimum wages, and in exploitative conditions. A floor level wage would only encourage and exacerbate this archaic practice and promote forced labour. Another huge concern with the law is in its provision of an arbitrary deduction of wages (up to 50% of monthly wages) based on performance, damage or loss, advances, etc.
In a country such as India, where employers, due to their higher social status, continue to exploit labour with impunity, this provision will only continue to push workers further into exploitative conditions, stamping on their bargaining power and rights of association. This will make the lives of workers worse as the draft rules do not clarify the governance and institutional structure for the “labour inspection system” in the law.
The International Labour Organisation’s Labour Inspection Convention of 1947 (Convention C081) — it has been ratified by India — provides for a well-resourced and independent inspectorate with provisions to allow thorough inspections and free access to workplaces. Ignoring these provisions, the draft rules propose another ad-hoc and unclear mechanism called the “inspection scheme”. All of this implies that in the absence of clarity in the draft rules, workers will not be able to demand even basic work rights in the fear of wage deductions, and will continue to be oppressed and marginalised.
All these provisions are not surprising when we consider the haste with which the law was passed by Parliament in the last monsoon session. There was not much discussion in view of the everyday survival and livelihood issues faced by millions of workers in India, due to their underprivileged social status and caste in comparison to that of employers and the state.
Therefore, it is disheartening that a law which was expected to provide economic and social justice to most of the population, now has provisions which will exploit workers further. There is no accountability from elected representatives on the broken promises of decent and fair wages. The Labour Code on Wages Act 2019 and the draft rules have failed the lives and the aspirations of over 50 crore informal workers in India. Working people are a national asset; undermining their well-being should be considered the biggest anti-national act.
An ill-advised proposal
Merging Assam Rifles with ITBP will impinge on national security and affect the morale of the force
Reports suggest that an attempt is under way to shift the operational control of Assam Rifles from the Army to the Home Ministry. This is not the first time that such an attempt is being made to ride roughshod over Assam Rifles in the sensitive Northeast region to serve vested interests.
In 2009, the draft Cabinet note for the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) was moved to amalgamate the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), a Central Armed Police Force, and provide leadership from the police, replacing military leadership. This proposal was turned down by the CCS, understandably recognising the importance of the history and traditions of Assam Rifles, and the crucial role it continues to play in the security of the Northeast region.
Since then, at least seven attempts have been made to target Assam Rifles in order to enlarge options for cadre management of police. Having failed to convince the discerning political leaders, the current effort is to hijack Assam Rifles by transferring its full control to the Home Ministry, and replace Army officers with police officers. Downgrading Assam Rifles from its present status of paramilitary force by merging a part or whole of it with a Central Armed Police Force will not only impinge on national security but also affect the strength and morale of the force.
Operating in a sensitive region
A peep into the history of Assam Rifles shows that the force, created in 1835 to protect British interests in the Northeast, continues to operate in that region with the advantage of understanding the terrain and the people. Having participated in all the major wars and insurgency situations in the country, Assam Rifles has been awarded over 1,700 gallantry and distinguished service awards for its service to the nation. All this was possible due to the military training, ethos and leadership provided by Army officers since 1884.
The Northeast is the most volatile and insurgency-affected region of India after Kashmir. Besides operating from within the region, militants surreptitiously operate from neighbouring countries by exploiting the free movement regime along the India-Myanmar border and inaccessible terrain. These borders, though settled, require specialised skills, not just mere policing functions.
Recently China has brought its frontier troops, including those guarding its border with India, directly under the military command, removing civilian control over them. The India-Myanmar border, though manned by Myanmar’s Border Guard Police, is also controlled by Myanmar’s Army for conducting seamless operations against insurgent groups operating against the state. India is busy in divesting the Army of operational control of a force which has imbibed military ethos and special skills, and handing it over to police officers to command. Additionally, at present ITBP is guarding the 3,388 km India-Tibet border; assigning them another 1,643 km of the India-Myanmar border will be a command and control nightmare for the Director General of ITBP.
The elephant in the room
The proposed merger of ITBP with Assam Rifles is premised on the profile management of an already expanded IPS cadre. However, both these systems follow very different sets of rules, hierarchies and operating philosophies. A more viable alternative for the Home Ministry would be to look inwards and merge ITBP with the Sashastra Seema Bal to space out the almost continuous high altitude tenures of ITBP personnel. Since both are being led by police officers, internal management would be easier. However, the need is to address the elephant in the room. It is more prudent to have a specialised counterinsurgency force, which doubles as a reserve for conventional war. This is due to its continued functioning, manning and training under the Army with a similar ethos and structure. Shifting Assam Rifles under a cadre which is looking to just create career opportunities places personal interests over national security.
TheAssam Rifles is the oldest paramilitary force of India. The unit can trace its lineage back to a paramilitary police force that was formed under the British in 1835 called Cachar Levy. Since then the Assam Rifles have undergone a number of name changes— the Assam Frontier Police (1883), the Assam Military Police (1891) and Eastern Bengal and Assam Military Police (1913), before finally becoming the Assam Rifles in 1917. Over the course of its history, the Assam Rifles and its predecessor units have served in a number of roles, conflicts and theatres including World War I where they served in Europe and the Middle East, and World War II where they served mainly in Burma. In the post World War II period the Assam Rifles has expanded greatly as has its role.
There are currently 46 battalions of Assam Rifles with a sanctioned strength of 63,747 personnel.
It is under the control of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and they perform many roles including the provision of internal security under the control of the army through the conduct of counter insurgency and border security operations, provision of aid to the civilians in times of emergency, and the provision of communications, medical assistance and education in remote areas.
In times of war they can also be used as a combat force to secure rear areas if needed. Since 2002 it has been guarding the Indo–Myanmar barrier as per the government policy "one border one force".
The Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) refers to uniform nomenclature of security forces in India under the authority of Ministry of Home Affairs. They are the,
Border Security Force (BSF),
Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF),
Central Industrial Security Force (CISF),
Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP),
Assam Rifles (AR),
National Security Guard (NSG) and
Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB)
Central Armed Police Forces personnel also serve in various important organisations such as Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Special Protection Group (SPG), National Investigation Agency (NIA), Intelligence Bureau (IB), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) and Indian Army on deputation. Their role and performance, therefore, assumes a great significance due to the special features of an emergency force which is pressed in aid to civil power to perform multiple roles in extremely difficult situations.