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- Professor Peris Jones, University of Oslo (leader)
- Associate professor Sammy Adelman, University of Warwick (1. opponent)
- Professor Lyla Mehta, University of Sussex (2. opponent)
Chair of defence
Vice Dean Vibeke Blaker Strand
- Professor Ingunn Ikdahl
- Professor Anne Hellum
- Professor Anne Griffiths
Can law save the world?
The legislative job guarantee that underpins the world's largest development program, India's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), shows the potential of rights to increase people's bargaining power so that they can secure the resources they need when facing global socioecological crises. But findings from six months of fieldwork in one of India's driest districts confirm that the law alone is not enough to change the way common resources are managed in a sustainable and equitable manner. For legal rights to become living rights, those who give life to the law - the rights-holders themselves - must be able to organise against the structures and policies that drive the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
NREGA gives all households in rural areas in India the right to 100 days of employment in projects aimed at ecological purposes - such as measures against drought and for land development - as well as infrastructure building. Work on projects just a short distance from where people live can be demanded at any time, and pays minimum wages with equal pay to men and women. In addition, the law provides further legal guarantees that ensure shorter working days and better working conditions. Projects are carried out on communal land or the land owned by the small farmer-labourers who work under the law.
In areas such as drought-stricken Anantapur district in southern India, where there have been deep caste, class, and gender inequalities, NREGA has changed the way people work. The law has provided both new quantities of work at a time when drought has reduced income opportunities from agriculture, but also new experiences of decent work. The bargaining power of small farmer-labourers has therefore increased in relation to large farmers, bureaucrats, and politicians, which has not only led to better wages and conditions in other sectors, but also greater self-confidence and influence in dealing with the rest of society. This has opened up new arenas where small farmer-labourers can be visible and organise.
At the same time, NREGA has not led to durable infrastructure, or lasting changes in the way water and other common resources are managed. What is being built under NREGA, especially measures against drought and soil erosion on small farmers’ own drought-stricken and precarious lands, does not tend to lead to as secure income opportunities as the immediate salary from the work itself. In addition, state governments and bureaucracy control most of the priorities and details about the projects undertaken under the law. This, combined with prevailing neoliberal ideas that dictate that development programs should cost as little as possible, leads to the quantity of work completed being prioritised over the quality of the work done. Although beneficiaries can formally change priorities through democratic structures at village level, it is still difficult to organise against powerful (and usually male) interests and landowners who dominate these forums, even with increased bargaining power in the workplace.
Nevertheless, the law has created a platform that allows ‘lower’ caste-classes, the landless, women, the disabled, and others to work and live in villages in a completely different way. For the first time, the law and the state have “been there” when people needed them. Organisations and movements have been able to work intensively in several regions building on the foundation provided by NREGA, and there are several examples where organisation, and democratic integration of technical and local knowledge, has led to major changes in the management of common resources and new, more sustainable practices. This shows the potential of legislative rights in the cultivation of norms and collective action in the face of increasingly catastrophic socioecological crises like climate change.