May 14, 2019
May 14, 2019



The term ‘social minimum’ makes us think of an aggregate of basic minimal resources which is required by an individual for a decent existence in the society. To ensure the social minimum, the governments frame certain policies but with the transition from the era of Minimal States to the modern Welfare States, the determination of the social minimum has become much more complex. Social minimum shouldn’t be conceived as a mere dividend of wealth but rather it should be seen as a tool for securing social justice. It is a form of distributive justice and with time, we have to extend its ordinary meaning to suit the needs of the changing society for securing justice. Justice as per Rawls is fairness, which is a normative concept. With the changing times, the social minimum is not just confined to insurance, but it also means inclusion. Rather than providing mere insurance and compensation, our objective must be taking developmental measures to build up their capabilities as it alone can minimize inequalities and ensure justice. It is a tedious task to determine the exact yardstick of ensuring social minimum. Rather, in a Welfare State, the Government should try to ensure the development of a certain level of capabilities which is indispensable for leading a minimally decent life. They should focus on developing and providing the level and kinds of resources which shall be required by the individuals to have the capabilities to achieve the social minimum in the contemporary society. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (hereinafter referred as ‘MNREGA’) is one such enactment in India which aims to enhance the livelihood security of the rural households in the country by providing minimum one hundred days of guaranteed wage employment in each financial year to the adult members of every household who volunteer to perform unskilled manual work as specified under the statute.

The researcher has tried to analyse the responsibilities and obligations of India, for securing a social minimum to its citizens with primary focus on their right to livelihood and employment as a welfare state, in the first part of the Article. The subsequent parts deal with the objectives of social minimum and the problems of realizing such objectives in a welfare state like India. The researcher supports the idea that inclusion of the deprived classes in the social, political and economic sectors and building of capabilities, citing the example of the MNREGA, will help us to overcome the problem of rising inequalities, ensure justice and help us to determine a social minimum in a welfare state like India.


A welfare state is one where the government plays a pivotal role in safeguarding and promoting the socio-economic well being of the people and is founded on the key principles of “equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth and public responsibility” for the citizens who are deprived of the minimal provisions of a good life.1 It aims at achieving economic equality by assuring an equitable standard of living for all its citizens. India, being a Welfare State has to enact ameliorative legislation keeping in mind the Directive Principles of State Policies that have been enshrined in Part IV of the Indian Constitution. These are indispensible guidelines for the State which facilitates effective and efficient governance. Article 38 of the Constitution of India reads that the ‘state shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively it may, a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of national life’2 The Directive Principles of State Policy mention that the State should secure all its citizens adequate means to livelihood and make efforts to distribute the ownership and control of material resources of the community in a manner which will serve the common good in the best manner.3 The State should ensure that the operation of economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment. Article 41 of the Constitution provides that the State shall within the limits of its economic capacity and development make effective provisions for securing right to work and public assistance of unemployment. Article 43 also stresses that the States shall endeavor to secure a living wage and a decent standard of life to all workers. These Directive Principles of State Policies though non justiciable in nature are absolutely necessary for securing socio economic justice and realisation of welfare objectives. These provisions cumulatively emphasize on providing the citizens with fair opportunity to utilise their ability to work for earning a livelihood. It will lead to their emancipation from the menace of unemployment and poverty which will ultimately lead to the realisation of their right to liberty.

According to the World Bank, about 270,000,000 Indians are below poverty line i.e., one in every 5 Indians is poor and about 80% of India’s poor reside in the rural areas.4 The poor own fewer assets, spend more on the basic necessities like food, fuel and light, have lower access to the basic services like latrines, electricity and tap water and have lower literacy levels due to lower rates of completion of secondary education.5 The problem of unemployment has been a major concern in India right from the inception and the very first Five year Plan laid the foundation for an all round sector based development in a medium term prospective for achieving the objective of growth in employment as well as increase in labour force. In the Seventh Five Year Plan, employment was placed at the core of developmental strategies of the State. In the Ninth Five Year Plan employment was regarded as one of the three important dimensions of State policy along with regional balance and quality of life. In the Eleventh Five Year Plan focus was placed on the inclusive growth which identified employment as a key element for promoting inclusiveness. During all these years various policies and programmes have been introduced and implemented to boost self employment and fight unemployment in India. India is a Welfare State and it believes in the holistic development of individuals and enhancement of capabilities will be effective in ensuring a social minimum to its citizens by virtue of which they can exercise their socio-economic and political rights and live with dignity in a fair and just society.


Welfare states are expected to secure its citizens a social minimum which means a “certain level of material well being beneath which no one is permitted to fall.”6Social minimum refers to a “modest level of consumption and in addition to satisfying basic needs, with careful money management it also provides the opportunity to consume goods and services that have achieved mass demand at a certain level of economic, social and cultural development. This minimum, in extraordinary cases, also provides some possibility for realignment and reserve.”7 Rawls has emphasized that social minimum is indispensible for the functioning of a democracy.8

The primary objective of social minimum in view of Rawls is to secure social justice through enabling and regulating social and economic cooperation to benefit the least advantaged consistent with the just savings principle.9Rawls argued that the people of the present generations owe a duty to its successors to save sufficient material capital to maintain just institutions over time and Rawls calls this the just savings principle.10But for arguing for this principle we need to assume that people live in a veil of ignorance that firstly, they are not aware that which generation they belong to and secondly, whether they are poor or relatively wealthy, agricultural or industrialised.11 It also depends upon the higher order of morality that a generation cares for its successors. It is thus a difficult task to enforce as people might not be willing to part with their wealth for the betterment of the least advantaged of the future generations. It is also difficult to set a yardstick of the just savings in the light of intergenerational differences. It is important to determine the rates of taxation in this regard as the rates of taxation must not be too high which will affect the economic efficiency of the State and again, it should not be too coercive to result in civil unrest or revolts within the State.

Justice and injustice forms an integral component during evaluation of factors such as labour earnings, discrimination in employment and allocation of tax burdens among the rich and the poor.12 Providing social assistance for ensuring a social minimum and minimisation of inequalities is one of the most elementary functions of a Welfare State. It aims at distributive justice and social justice which form the basic structures of a Welfare State. However the difficulties in the implementation of the social minimum arises out of the complexity in calculation of what shall constitute the social minimum with the changing times and situations. Apart from the responsibilities of the State itself, with globalisation, States are also bound by International treaties and agreements to ensure a basic social minimum to its citizens in the form of a bundle of inseparable rights. For successful implementation of social minimum, it becomes very important for us to evaluate the concept of social minimum in a manner that suits the needs of the present generation. Enactment of a social minimum in this regard by the welfare state amounts to formulating a “social minimum policy regime” for the minimisation of inequalities or bringing about a social order to build an environment of equality and social justice.

Rawls assumed that individuals are identical with regard to their needs and preferences for primary goods13 but population in a State like India is inherently diverse. Systematic inequalities are pervasive and unavoidable in a diverse population. State policies are meaningless unless they provide justice to the weakest sections of the Society. According to the classical Utilitarian thinking pioneered by Jeremy Bentham, ‘Welfare’ meant happiness which was assessed as the net balance of pleasure over pain that the individual experiences. But Amartya Sen opined in this regard that, can we possibly determine the wellbeing of a person solely on the basis of him or her being happy and satisfied. Therefore, he said that interpersonal comparisons should necessarily be taken into consideration to deliver social justice effectively. Another concept which is used by Welfare states to enact social minimum policies is ‘Resourcism’. Resourcism assesses the wellbeing of the people by considering the possession of general resources by them which are necessary for leading a decent life. Amartya Sen argued that these resources cannot be the exclusive focus of determining well being or achieving social justice. He stated that if all people were identical, an index of goods consumption would be correlated with people’s well being but in reality, no two individuals are the same as there is considerable amount of diversity among people, which means that they require different amounts and kinds of goods to achieve the same level of well being.14 Different individuals may have different capabilities to convert the same resources into valuable outcomes and thus resourcism might not be the best way to achieve neutrality in society or a fairness based system of social justice altogether. The focus should be rather placed on enhancing the relationship between individuals and the resources as distribution of resources is very relevant for procedural fairness in the society but it should be supplemented with adequate enhancement of capabilities.

The capabilities of individual might vary with individual physiology such as age, gender, disability, etc, diversity in local environment, social conditions etc15 and therefore while enacting social minimum policy regimes the States must take into consideration these factors.

Rawls considered that the very idea of moral laws would be detrimental to democracy and therefore he argued that laws including a constitution should incorporate the idea of justice as a part of Rule of Law.16 The Welfare states in modern times should consider appropriate political processes for ensuring the social minimum to its citizens by proper institutionalisation. They should emphasize on the enactment of proper legislations and fix accountability for their implementation through parliamentary scrutiny, budgetary control, ensuring right of appeal etc.17The commitment of ensuring social minimum should not be confined solely to moral and metaphysical doctrines but also be backed by necessary political legitimacy.


Amartya Sen explains that a person’s wellbeing can be determined by various factors ranging from the most basic things such as adequate nourishment, good health, avoidance of escapable morbidity, premature mortality, etc to more complex things such as happiness, having self respect, being able to participate in community life, etc.18 Although the capability approach takes into regard the concept of happiness in determination of wellbeing of an individual but it also takes into account the development of certain fundamental capabilities without which the goal of minimisation of inequalities will not be achievable19. Therefore according to this concept, the social minimum in the present era would mean the freedom of access to resources which are indispensible for the realisation of abilities of individuals. It advocates for the development of capabilities that are necessary for a person to lead a minimally decent life in the society and for realisation of his actual freedom and liberty.

Rawls initial idea of a social minimum as stated in the Theory of Justice meant guarantees by the government to make special payments to the individuals for sickness and employment or by more systematic devices such as graded income supplement, which was a kind of negative tax20but the essence of a social minimum regime is not merely providing insurance or compensation. Its objective is to facilitate economic as well as political inclusion of the disadvantaged sections of the society. These regimes should aim at poverty reduction in India by providing fair opportunity to the least advantaged people to use and enhance their capabilities. Therefore, emerging social assistance programmes in developing nations are mostly productivist and aim at economic inclusion of the deprived groups. The objective of these policies should be developmental and not merely compensatory. A lot of stress is being laid on programmes ensuring guarantee of employment and eradication of unemployment will facilitate minimisation of inequalities and poverty, thereby, promote fairness and social justice in the society.


MNREGA was implemented in India in the year 2006 with a vision to fight rural poverty. It resulted in the creation of a justiciable right to work for the households in rural India which guarantees minimum hundred days of employment to any individual who is willing to work under the scheme (The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme, 2009). If the State fails in its obligation to provide such employment, it has to pay such individuals a compulsory unemployment allowance under the Act. The MNREGA is the first of its kind of a right based legal entitlement in India which will lead to capability formation of the least advantaged classes. It is therefore a measure for the enhancement of the overall wellbeing of the individuals through a comprehensive and inclusive development.21

The primary objective of MNREGA is to ensure social protection to the least advantaged and deprived sections by providing them with employment opportunities. It aims at social and economic empowerment of the deprived sections by providing them with a right based legislation guaranteeing employment and means of income generation. This Act aims at poverty reduction by providing individuals with a means of livelihood and thus helps the State to effectively carry out its Welfare functions. The MNREGA through its impact on income, consumption, food security and employment acts as a productivity enhancing instrument for protecting and empowering the poor and the least advantaged.22

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in India in partnership with the Ministry of Rural Development of the Government of India has supported the implementation and monitoring of the NREGA by spreading awareness about the programme, providing technical expertise in the key functional areas, facilitating national as well as global knowledge sharing, helping in civil-society engagement in assessment and learning and strengthening transparency and accountability.23

MNREGA is a practical application of the Capability Approach as it emphasizes primarily on the capability building of the deprived sections. It provides guaranteed employment to the weaker section of people who are incapable of taking resort to self employment due to lack of assets or poor credit worthiness. Labour is their only asset and providing them with the opportunity to channelize their labour into productive uses enhances their well being in the most holistic manner. It leads to better exercise of rights and liberties by the individuals and thus protects the essence of a democracy in its true sense. It provides the necessary conditions for inclusive growth “ranging from basic wage security to a transformative empowerment process of democracy.”24 It aims at poverty alleviation on a permanent basis through capacity building and catering to the employment needs of the rural poor.

MNREGA, world’s largest anti poverty scheme suffers largely due to factors such as loopholes in implementation, corruption and administrative defects25 but nonetheless it is a landmark enactment by India which goes beyond poverty alleviation by recognizing employment as a legal and justiciable right of individuals. Although the results all across the country have been quite uneven, MNREGA being backed by political will and adequate budget resources has yielded quite encouraging results in the past years.26 Transparency and public accountability are integral features of the MNREGA and it aims at strengthening democratic processes at the very grassroots’ level. It is a revolutionary piece of legislation which can bring about the necessary change in rural India and help in minimisation of disparities. The MNREGS got a record allocation of Rs 60,000 crore in the interim budget 201927 which might still not be sufficient to meet the total demand for employment at the targeted level but with years to come, we might see this as one of the better policies to eradicate poverty and ensure social justice in a holistic manner by providing opportunities and building capabilities of individuals belonging to the least advantaged sections.


After assessing all aspects, it becomes clear that the goal of ensuring a fairness based justice system cannot be fulfilled by providing mere dividend of wealth or compensation to the least advantaged groups. For achieving a social minimum in the correct sense in the present era, efforts should be directed towards developing a socio-economic rights based system and providing access to necessary opportunities for building and enhancing the required capabilities for living a minimally decent life. The State should try to develop policies which will result in a progressive realisation of the basic economic, social and political rights by the citizens with the maximum available resources. The most important contribution of Amartya Sen’s capability approach from the point of global justice is the introduction of the ‘human element’ into the developmental debate.28 He stressed on the developments of capabilities of people and focused on what people are able to do and be; and what liberty and freedom do they have to develop or use their abilities. He laid emphasis on removing the shackles which chain people from usiang their abilities and urged for policies that would remove inequalities and injustices that would ensure justice and real freedom to the weaker sections. Progressive statutes like the MNREGA, The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act and schemes like Make in India are trying to bring in a social change and are important steps towards minimisation of inequalities by social inclusion of the deprived classes and empowering them through providing the access to enjoy right to a decent life, livelihood and employment in its full strength. These steps towards minimisation of inequalities help us to embrace the capability approach in its true sense and provide us with the hope of realisation of the objective of ensuring justice, equality and freedom to the deprived sections of the society in social, political as well as the economic sector.



1 ‘Concept of Welfare State and Its Relevance in Indian Scenario’ <> accessed 20 February 2019.


3 ibid.

4 ‘India’s Poverty Profile’ (2016) <> accessed 20 February 2019.

5 ibid.

6 JEREMY WALDRON, ‘John Rawls and the Social Minimum’ (1986) 3 Journal of Applied Philosophy 21 <> accessed 3 February 2019.

7 ‘The Subsistence Minimum and Social Minimum in 2017’ <> accessed 20 February 2019.

8 Katie Boyle, ‘Constitutionalising a Social Minimum’ <> accessed 20 February 2019.

9 Armando Barrientos, ‘Justice-Based Social Assistance.’ (2016) 16 Global social policy 151 <> accessed 3 February 2019.

10 ‘Just Savings Principle – Seven Pillars Institute’ (2017) <> accessed 20 February 2019.


12 Barrientos (n 9).

13 Dasgupta (n 11).

14 ‘Amartya Sen’s Capability Perspective of Development and Well-Being | Issues and Challenges in India’ (2018) <> accessed 15 March 2019.

15 James Fieser and Bradley Harris Dowden, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy- Sen’s Capability Approach (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Pub) <> accessed 2 February 2019.

16 Surendra Bhandari, ‘The Ancient and Modern Thinking about Justice: An Appraisal of the Positive Paradigm and the Influence of International Law’, vol 13 (2014) <> accessed 15 March 2019.

17 Barrientos (n 9).

18 Edward N Zalta, ‘Social Minimum’.

19 Fieser and Dowden (n 14).

20 Barrientos (n 9).

21 Kunal Kumar Yadav, ‘MNREGA and Capability Approach: A Theoretical Analysis’ (2017) 3 Imperial Journal of Interdisciplinary Research (IJIR <> accessed 4 February 2019.

22 ibid.

23 Undp India, ‘Rights-Based Legal Guarantee as Development Policy: The Mahatma Gandhi NREGA Rights-Based Legal Guarantee as Development Policy: The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ <> accessed 4 February 2019.

24 Rumela Ghosh, ‘THEME : THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF SOCIAL SECURITY : A Bird’s Eye View into Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ (2013) <> accessed 4 February 2019.

25 FE Bureau, ‘World’s Largest Anti-Poverty Scheme MGNREGA Cut Poverty, Empowered Women, but Reach Limited – The Financial Express’ (2015) <> accessed 4 February 2019.

26 India (n 21).

27 ‘Budget 2019 | MGNREGA Scheme: Big Budget Number! Rs 60,000 Crore Set aside for MGNREGA This Year’ (2019) <> accessed 21 February 2019.

28 ‘Amartya Sen’s Capability Perspective of Development and Well-Being | Issues and Challenges in India’ (n 14).


Dulung Sengupta is currently pursuing her LLM from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She has completed her graduation from the Department of Law, University of Calcutta.

In Content Picture Credit: Wall Street Journal

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