PUDR wishes to draw public attention to the recent controversy where Planning Commission informed the Supreme Court that anyone earning more than Rs 32 in urban and Rs 26 in rural areas per day is considered above the poverty line. Article 43 of India’s Constitution lays down that “(t)he state shall endeavour to secure by suitable legislation or economic organisation or in any other way to all workers, agricultural, industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage conditions of work ensuring a decent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunities”. India’s low ranking in major human development indices and the fact that an overwhelming majority of the population continue to be denied this conceptualisation of what would be considered a “fair wage”, raises disturbing questions with regard to the official standpoint on poverty.
In 1957 at the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) moves were made towards setting down norms for fixing Minimum Wage, a euphemism for a “living wage.’’ The 15th ILC recommended that in the first place the standard working class family should be taken to mean husband, wife and two children below the age of 14 yrs. Second, minimum food requirement should be calculated on the basis of 2700 calories daily per adult man, 2160 for woman and 1620 for the child. Further clothing requirement of 72 yards for a family per annum would be added while housing allowance corresponding to the minimum area provided for under the governments industrial housing schemes. Lastly fuel, lighting and other items of expenditure should constitute 20 percent of the total Minimum Wage.
While the Government did not accept these recommendations, Supreme Court approved these norms through its judgement in the case of U.Unichoyi v. State of Kerala (AIR 1962 SC 12) and thereby acquiring the force of law behind it. The apex court through its judgement in Workmen v. Reptakos Brett & Co Ltd (AIR 1992 SC 504) added a sixth norm – 25 percent of the total Minimum Wage was supposed to cover children’s education, medical treatment, recreation etc. The Court observed that these six norms would be nothing more than Minimum Wage at “subsistence level” which the workers must get “at all times and under all circumstances”.
Adherence to the six norms, let alone the five norms laid down by the 15th ILC, has been followed in breach. As a "living wage", at current wage rates declared under Minimum Wage Act, comes to Rs 247 per day for unskilled. Rs 32 touted by the Planning Commission as "below poverty line" is less than seven times the Minimum Wage which itself is a "subsistence wage". Thus Minimum Wage is seven times that of BPL rate. What this implies is that mass of our people are being robbed of their right to life by artificial constructions of poverty line. PUDR reiterates that the letter and spirit of Article 43 which forms part of the Directive Principles of State Policy be the basis for providing basic requirement to all citizens of India so that their right to a life of dignity and liberty can be ensured.
Harish Dhawan and Paramjeet Singh
26th September 2011