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In its recent press release the NREGA Sangrash Morcha brought in several important issues which we need to reflect upon for the efficient implementation of one of the world’s biggest employment guarantee schemes. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) budget for 2018-19 is Rs 55,000 crores, the same as that of this year’s in money terms. (The initial budget of Rs 48,000 crores for 2017-18 was supplemented with Rs 7,000 crores in January 2018). While MGNREGA suffers from various challenges including delays in payments, low transparency, low scale of work and non-payment of minimum wages, it becomes extremely important to see if this scheme is helping the rural women in uplifting them from poverty and possibly dissolving the caste barrier through the labour market participation of rural lower caste women.

The caste system in India is structured as a four-tiered socio-eco-political system determined by familial line; 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 or faeces, resulting in them being considered polluting in themselves – they were not to be touched, since 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. 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 such as power supplies and water sources. It is undeniably shameful to be considered ‘Untouchable’, but 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. 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 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.

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, and hence MGNREGA is designed to transform rural livelihoods through implementing a rights-based approach to employment, and mentions empowering rural women as an expected impact of the program. However, the ground realities show us a different picture.

When it comes about Dalit women in the public domain, Rodrigues (1994) provides this analogy, thus showing the double tag of impurity and shame connected both to being Dalit and being woman:

“While the bazaar, or the outside, could pollute the man, the woman could be polluted by her own body and insulated from social intercourse, during menstrual cycles, childbirth, and death of her husband.”

Social discrimination does play a part in influencing women’s under- and unemployment rates. A study conducted in three states in 2005, showed that higher-caste-women had a larger probability of being employed than women from lower (Dalit) castes. Further, the study showed that Dalit women had a maximum of 148 days of employment during a year (not under MGNREGA), while women from higher castes had an average level of 290 days of employment per year. Dalit women are also predominantly working within the agricultural sector – approximately 57 per cent – as compared to 29 per cent of higher-caste-women.

A World Bank study conducted in 2011 states that the labor market is among the most important sites of gender inequality, the struggle against which being critical in any attempt to reduce poverty. Caste and networks related to caste are important in searching for and finding employment, and precisely the importance of these networks plays a critical role in restricting occupational mobility for the non-caste, Dalit women. Gender inequality is also the reason behind women getting unequal pay for equal work. Even within the poor, women contribute a major part of the disposable income, as men spend more on personal comforts and women generally tend to prioritize ensuring welfare for the entire family. Therefore, women empowerment is acclaimed as a poverty reduction measure, and this is done by creating employment that is focused on women.

Women from scheduled castes have higher work participation rates than men. The majority of women in India, – 79 per cent, – work in agriculture, which is known for its exceptionally low wages. This could be a reflection of economic deprivation and poverty, because scheduled caste women were forced to accept any kind of employment and labor wages, simply to survive. This can again show how individuals from vulnerable social groups are driven into forced labor, showing the connection with social exclusion and discrimination. Furthermore, it shows how caste, class and gender converge in the process of making the groups more exposed to facing multiple discrimination. Dalits, and specifically Dalit women, are denied the rights each citizen are entitled to, making the battle for fair working conditions not only about wages, but human dignity.

The social background of NREGA workers revealed (shown in many scientific studies) that a significant number of beneficiaries belonged to the lowest strata of society in economic as well as social terms. Therefore the self-targeting (self-selection) element of the scheme worked on the right direction. When it comes about unemployment of women in rural areas, different states show different tendencies. As per one of the reports about Kerala, among rural women the unemployment rate decreased from 30.9 per cent to 21 per cent during the period 2004-05 to 2009-10, as per this report these trends were attributed to NREGA among other government schemes. It has also been witnessed that the implementation of NREGA in Kerala benefitted due to the innovative use of including the existing program Kudumbasree.

In the case of Tamil Nadu, women constitute approximately 80 per cent of the workforce the highest in the country. Women are involved in different layers of NREGA implementation in Tamil Nadu (sizeable numbers as NREGA staff at the GP and Block level as worksite supervisors (Makkal Nala Panniyalars, or MNPs), data entry operators and so on.). Participation of women in Gram panchayats (GPs) is also high. In Tamil Nadu, GPs are well-equipped and that is an important factor for the effective implementation of public work programs such as NREGA. A social audit in Tamil Nadu finds that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has brought about major changes in the lives of women, representatives in Tamil Nadu reporting that MGNREGA had been only source of income for them for the last few months. Availability of drinking water, food and childcare facilities has been found absent, resulting in either low participation of women with children, or women being forced not to carry their children to the worksites.

Dalit women in Madhya Pradesh, even though their participation in MGNREGA have increased over the years, are still among the poorest and most vulnerable to exploitation in India. In Uttar Pradesh single women were completely denied getting work, while upper-caste women could not work outsides their homes as it might not be dignified and bring in shame.

NREGA has provisions for providing equal wages for both men and women, making it a rather gender-sensitive public welfare scheme of its kind expanding the wage opportunities for women. Local Governments being the implementing agency; availability of work at local level,; regularity and predictability of working hours; less chance of work conditions being exploitative,; better wages than other work (the differences varies from Rs. 30- 65 per day); and work being socially acceptable and “dignified”; are certain features of NREGA which provide women a better earning possibility. By general perception, providing a parity of wages between women and men under NREGA has been regarded as a sufficient measure for addressing the gender issues within poverty reduction, and questions directed at ensuring gender equality also in the management and controlling of the productive assets created by NREGA, has been seen as a distraction and a diversion. Although there is a huge scope of further studies to seek the interplay between caste-class-gender divide in the rural wage market, schemes like MGNREGA have showed us a light, and with its effective implementation there is a chance of surpassing named divide. Intent itself has never been a satisfactory condition.

(Ashish Kumar Singh is a Doctoral Candidate at Higher School of Economics- National Research University, Moscow. He can be contacted at – ashish.tiss@gmail.com)

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    NREGA has been one of the few programs that aims to alleviate poverty in rural areas. But, it is not implemented with sincerity