Caste – the Actual Cost of Empowerment? Dalit Women & NREGA- A Study of the Poverty, Social Exclusion & Shame Nexus


This book “The Actual Cost of Caste: MGNREGA On The Ground” seeks to examine the lives of rural Dalit women in private as well as public spheres. A theoretical framework of poverty, shame and social exclusion has been used to explore the objectives. The study goes further and analyses one of India’s biggest social security programs, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and to what extent it has provided Dalit women with a shield that can protect them from who they are, what they are and where they are. The study uses Dalit feminism as a stand point, and utilizes the available data and literature to analyze the aforementioned objectives.


Dalit women within the caste hierarchy

The caste system in India is structured as a four-tiered socio-econo-political system determined by familial line. The system is classified in four Varna’s prescribing occupation along with the social status; in sinking order Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants) and Sudra (servants). Untouchables, or Dalits, were the people so low in social status that they were not included in the caste system; outcastes. The term „Untouchables‟ refers to their traditional degrading and „impure‟ occupations that often involved handling dead matter of faeces, resulting in them being considered polluting in themselves – they were not to be touched (Pareek 2010, 2).

The Dalit is ‘unclean’ from birth; is considered perpetually filthy and can never escape his status. According to Hindu scriptures, what is pure must be separated from what is impure (Ghose 2003). Following that logic, the impure and Untouchable Dalits are forced to live in segregated areas of villages and refrain from touching (and therefore ‘defiling’) common resources as power supplies and water sources (Dalton 2008). Rajawat (2004) states that it is undeniably shameful to be considered ‘Untouchable’, and that the practice of Untouchability which leads to higher caste people avoiding Dalits presence, can itself be regarded as an act of shaming. The practice of Untouchability is forbidden by law in the Indian constitution, but the social stigma, discrimination and social exclusion of Dalits remains both on an institutional and personal level even today. Akhter et al. (2007) asserted that the systematic exclusion has subjected the majority of Dalits to persistent poverty. Therefore, Dalits are suffering from the double burden of being poor and being Dalits. For Dalit women, the situation is even worse, as they suffer from the triple oppressions of being poor, being female and being female Dalits. Dalit women numbers 80.517 million, or approximately 48 per cent of the total Dalit population, 16 per cent of the total female population and 8 per cent of the total Indian population. (Government of India, National Census of India 2001, Final Population Totals 2004, cited in NCDHR 2006, 31)

All available data on the status of Dalit women’s rights to education, health and work participation, indicates that they are subjected to lower levels of enjoyment of these rights as compared both to non-Dalit women and men, and Dalit men. There exist, however, very little current data regarding women’s experiences of descent-based violence and discrimination the available data is classified either by gender or caste, but does not include both factors and the relations between them. Caste based Untouchability, discrimination and violence is extensively researched and documented, but mostly with referring to Dalits as one single group, not illuminating the specific intersection between descent, occupation-based identity and gender identity in the experiences of Dalit women (NCDHR 2006, 33).


Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in India is a social security program that addresses the social risk of unemployment in the country. It is based on the fact that the unemployment rate in the country has been soaring over the years and lack of sustainable source of income is responsible for high levels of income poverty especially among the youth and women in the country. The program is thus aimed at providing short time employment opportunities to ensure regular source of income (Kaustav 2010). Under this scheme rural unemployed adults are given a guarantee of 100 days of employment wages at a minimum fix rate by asking them to perform manual work within the community area (Ministry of Rural Development, 2005). In the beginning, in 2005, the act covered only the 200 poorest district of India, but after a long advocacy from civil society organizations and activists, the United Progressive Alliance government extended its scope to covering 625 districts in the year 2008.

NREGA provides employment for adult members of a rural household willing to do unskilled manual work. The beneficiaries are required to register in writing or orally to the local Gram Panchayat (village council). The Gram Panchayat will, after due verification, issue a Job Card. The Job Card will bear the photograph of all adult members of the household willing to work under NREGA and is free of cost. It should be issued within 15 days from the application date. A Job Card holder may further submit a written application for employment to the Gram Panchayat (village council), stating the time and duration for which work is sought. Then the Gram Panchayat issues a dated receipt of the written application for employment against which the guarantee of providing employment within 15 days. In case, the employment is not given within the given 15 days-time period, a fixed daily unemployment allowance as per the Act, has to be paid. Kaustav (2010) also mentions that in order to make sure that the beneficiaries do not have to travel long distances to get work, it is made as a provision in the act the work should be provided within the 5 km radius of the village. If the work is provided outside the 5 km radius, an additional 10per cent wages will be paid to meet additional transportation and living expenses. The Act also insures that the wages should be paid according to the national minimum wages Act of 1948 (ibid, 2010). Payment of wages shall be done on a weekly basis, and in any case not exceed a fortnight.  NREGA is an Employment Intensive Program (EIP). Ginneken (2003, 50) argues that EIPs are popular with developing countries because they enhance economic development by linking social protection to development of infrastructure in a country. The EIPs also have the benefit of being self-selecting and as such are an effective way of targeting. Only those who are desperately poor will participate in the projects (ibid). Thus, the issues of patronage and corruption in the selection of beneficiaries are minimized. Soares (2011, 20) observes that there is a self-selectivity in India’s NREGA program as landless laborers, small and marginal farmers, scheduled caste and schedule tribe population and women are over-represented among the beneficiaries. NREGA has had a positive impact in improving household food expenditure although he argues that the program has a weakness in that it does not cater to the goals of promoting skills and development of workers.

The Act states that ‘Priority’ should be given to women in the allocation of work in such a way that at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women” (Schedule II, Para 6,

NREGA cited in Jandu 2008, 1). MGNREGA is designed to transform rural livelihoods through implementing a rights-based approach to employment, and mention empowering rural women as an expected impact of the program (Holmes et al. 2008, 20).

Ashish Singh is working as a Consultant: Programmes, Policies & Communications with ActionAid India, New Delhi. He can be reached at- [email protected]



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