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Those outside the charmed circle

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  10 Jan 2016 12:00 AM GMT

D. N. Bezboruah

The polity in India imagines that it has a lot of pretending to do. Somewhere down the line of 69 years of freedom, politicians started believing that notions about democracy having to do with people (meaning everybody) had to be modified to mean some people—their own people. Quite obviously, their own people did not translate to just people of their families and their political party and supporters. Of course, they thought of their families and many of them even gave rise to dysties like the Nehru-Gandhi dysty. But no politician worth his salt could leave out the government officers and employees, because that was the charmed circle that translated to the organized sector as opposed to the unorganized sector. What had come about was a serious distortion of democracy that has grown like a festering sore over the years. As a result, we have a government that is of the government, for the government and by the government. The charmed circle or the organized sector comprises the political executive, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, the judiciary and the government employees and extends to the public sector corporations and their employees but leaves out everyone else.

And that is how, over the years, we have maged to create an inequitable division of our society into the organized and the unorganized sectors. The most remarkable aspect of the organized sector is that it is organized almost entirely for its own benefit even though it has to appear that the organization is for the benefit of the entire society. Actually, the organized sector does not lose any sleep over the fate of the people at large, even though that would appear to be its primary concern in a democratic society. The organized sector has neatly set up pay scales for different categories of service in all government and the semi-government setups. It has pay commissions set up from time to time to determine the appropriate emoluments for people in the hierarchy (who often spend more of their working hours not doing anything) rather than for people who actually work for a living. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we should have within the government and its agencies a whole lot of people who do very little work to justify their salaries and allowances. Our elected lawmakers have often been blamed for determining their own salary structures, allowances and perquisites. In actual fact, they are not the only ones doing this, even though their cupidity is very much on display when they propose the doubling of their salaries and allowances at one shot. Even the bureaucrats mage to determine their own pay-scales, allowances and perquisites, though they mage to give the impression that they have entrusted the job to some other entity. That entity is clearly one that is headed by a former bureaucrat or someone from the organized sector like a retired Supreme Court judge. It is not surprising, therefore, that the latest pay commission appointed by the Centre should have decided on a monthly pension of Rs 90,000 for retired secretaries of the Union government, even though by the time they retire, they mage to take care of all obligations to their children like paying for their education even up to their professiol degrees or postgraduate degrees. [There are few European countries where parents are required to look after the education of their children beyond the secondary stage.]

The lawmakers of our organized sector are even better off. They not only determine their own salaries, allowances and perquisites without need for any exterl committee to do so, but have no qualms even about doubling their emoluments at one shot. They are an envied lot because there is no minimum educatiol qualification set for MPs and MLAs. The icing on their cake comes in the form of a lifetime pension even if they complete just one term as legislator.

What the organized sector has long overlooked—to its utter discredit—is the gross injustice that is being meted out to the unorganized sector. It seems to have completely ignored the fact that the unorganized sector is much bigger than the organized sector and is the one that does almost all the work. In fact, one can regard the organized sector as the talking sector and the unorganized sector as the doing sector. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to claim that the organized sector is the undoing sector. This becomes all too apparent when one looks at the little that gets done in our government offices where we have such a strong presence of the organized sector. What are government departments doing most of the time? They are telling people why certain very simple quotidian things cannot be done because of certain rules. The most interesting aspect of the equation is that the disabling rules turn out to be person-specific and closely related to the presence or absence of bribes. More often than not (at least in our society) the government officers often exist to play games of chess with citizens with an unfamiliar chess board and bizarre rules. This is why we have bizarre situations like Mr X being able to secure building permission for an apartment complex against all existing rules, while Mr Y, who has all the statutory rules on his side fails to get permission to build because he has not fulfilled the primary requirement of paying the right quantum of bribe.

As I said earlier, most of the work that gets done in our country is done by the unorganized sector. When a government department has to get some work done, it is obliged to do so through contracts even though the work itself does not really call for any professiol skills. All the actual workers—masons, carpenters, plumbers, blacksmiths, cooks, bakers, confectioners, skilled gardeners—are all in the unorganized sector. The government has given no thought to fair wages or fair working hours for people in any of these occupations. There is a minimum daily wage set by the government for daily wage earners. This is sometimes paid, but there are times when people get away with paying much less than the minimum daily wage set by the government. Nor is the government really able to enforce the working hours against the stipulated minimum wages. On the other hand, when it comes to specialized work, the carpenter, the mason, the plumber or the blacksmith can demand their own wages and get them even when at times such wages are extortiote. This is mainly because of the terrible shortage of skilled workers in the State. A skilled worker from outside can, therefore, command his wages. There is no competition to determine fair wages.

What is most unfortute for the unorganized sector is a total lack of any kind of social security or provisions for old age. The humblest government employee has his pension to look forward to in his old age. It does not matter how much real work a lower division assistant may have put out during his entire service career. When he reaches the end of the road there is a small pension and the necessary medical benefits for him in his old age. There is absolutely nothing of the sort for those in the unorganized sector despite the fact that they are the ones who do most of the real work without which no human society can be sustained. Think of Mumbai without its thousands of dabbawallahs. Most office workers would have starved without this vital workforce in the unorganized sector.

No democratic country that lays claims to being a welfare state can turn its back so resolutely and for so long on its unorganized sector. In most welfare states, where education and health care are free, these benefits are there for everyone in the country regardless of their fincial status or earnings. Unless we can find a way of doing something similar and making sure that our social benefits accrue as much to the unorganized sector as to the organized sector, our claims of having an inclusive society are bound to remain empty vaunts and our democracy is going to remain confined to the organized sector of India alone. This is not what we won our freedom for.

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