Tilonia/Harmara Panchayats, Ajmer district, Rajasthan: Until two years ago, Vimla had never even considered stepping out of her house for work. Women in her part of the world didn’t work. Now, she doesn’t just work, but also operates a bank account, participates in household decisions, and is learning two of the Rs (reading and writing).
The difference is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) that was launched in Vimla’s village in 2008.
Vimla, who is in her 20s, is not unique. She is an example of what is happening in her village and across the state.
Ruhi Tewari notes how apart from social and economic impact, MGNREGS is also ushering in what might well be a subtle yet crucial political shift
In Rajasthan, MGNREGA has altered not just economic but also social dynamics. At least two out of every three workers employed under the scheme in most parts of the state are women, and the job guarantee programme is contributing to their gradual, but steady, economic and social empowerment.
“Across Rajasthan, 80-90% of the workforce under MGNREGA comprises women. This has brought about a massive change in the mindsets of people here and has instilled new-found confidence in women,” says Ram Karan, a social activist in Tilonia district associated with the Barefoot College—a non-governmental organization that provides basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities.
So much so that these women now open and manage their accounts in banks or post offices, and some of them are in the process of gaining a rudimentary education.
“The women, oppressed so far, have now become economically independent—earning their own living and also deciding how to spend it, unlike earlier, when the men would take all decisions. In fact, even their children’s health is improving given that they can now choose to spend their money where it’s needed,” adds Karan, who is also the coordinator for MGNREGA in Tilonia and Harmara panchayats.
MGNREGA, launched in February 2005, is the flagship social development programme of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) and has been widely credited with helping the alliance return to power at the Centre in the 2009 general election. It provides for 100 days of work for one member of each rural household at a minimum wage per day.
Fair share: (from top) In Phaloda village, of the 71 workers constructing a step-dam under MGNREGA, 63 are women; it’s a similar story in Naya Gaon, where the majority of the wokers digging a water pond are women; in Harmara, a record of all workers under the scheme is maintained on the wall of the panchayat building. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
MGNREGA’s design promises much for women’s empowerment. Ignoring the reality of gender inequalities, it views men and women equally with respect to opportunities for gainful employment as well as wage rates. The Act stipulates the same wages for men and women and is committed to ensuring that at least 33% of the workers are women.
Rajasthan, has been one of the most obvious beneficiaries on this count, a significant achievement for a state where most women once didn’t have a voice.
“Earlier, my family members would never let me step out to work but now, I earn my own living. I have also opened by own bank account and can also sign my name. And of course, unlike earlier when my husband controlled all household finances, now even I can decide how to spend the money. Why shouldn’t I, now that I am also earning?” says Vimla, who uses only one name. She and 60 other workers are digging a water pond under the scheme in Naya Gaon village. And 52 of the 60 are women.
Most women—whose work hours are from 9am to 5pm every day—spend their incomes on crucial household items, their children’s education and health. Sometimes, they also pamper themselves with some trinkets of jewellery.
The women have also learnt to challenge certain social norms.
Manphool, in her early 40s, is a widow with no children. She is one of the beneficiaries of the scheme and has thus far earned Rs9,500. “At least now, I have become economically independent. Earlier, I couldn’t even go out to work and had very little money. Now I do not have to depend on anybody,” she says.
Economic empowerment doesn’t just lead to social empowerment; it also leads to political aspirations.
Norti Bai, who is in her 50s, is the first Dalit woman sarpanch of Harmara panchayat. She was elected last month with overwhelming support of women in her area; she attributes her win to growing awareness among women because of the employment guarantee programme.
Of the 1,300 MGNREGA job cards issued in her panchayat, Norti Bai’s was among the first.
The numbers bear out the popularity of the scheme with wo- men in the state. Women constitute 67% of the total 482.9 million people who have benefited from MGNREGA across the state. In Ajmer district, women constitute 73% of the MGNREGA workforce.
“Participation of women in MGNREGA across the state is almost two-thirds and this is making them financially empowered,” says Tanmay Kumar, commissioner, MGNREGA in Rajasthan. “The fact that they are coming out of their homes to work and are making financial decisions shows they are breaking several social barriers. With work also comes an awareness of one’s rights.”
Officials also say women’s participation in the scheme has had a direct impact on education with more families now spending on their children’s education.
In Phaloda village under the Tilonia panchayat, 71 workers are constructing a step-dam under the scheme; 63 of these workers are women and they have similar stories to relate.
Most of them agree that the scheme has made them financially independent, more self-assured and aware, putting them on a social platform that had seemed unachievable earlier.
“Earlier, even for little things like bangles, bindis, I was at the mercy of my husband, but now I can buy whatever I want to. I even have a post office account now and I manage to save money,” says Hira of Phaloda village, adding that she can now afford to send her children to school.
Hira’s husband Kishorichand, who is visiting the site to pick up their child, insists that he is happy about his wife’s new-found economic independence.
“It helps in many ways. Our family income has increased so we can give our children better education. My wife has not asked me for money to buy things for herself and the children since she started getting this income... It seems like she has become more confident of her own abilities and position,” he says.
Still, the situation is far from perfect.
Women workers face several problems such as having to travel long distances and work all day long, either leaving their children at home or keeping them with them in the heat. Delayed payments are another irritant. They also complain of the minimum wages being too low to cover their household expenses given inflation and of work for 100 days a year being inadequate. Some are also not happy about having to maintain a minimum balance in MGNREGA bank accounts. Then, there are instances where husbands of women workers simply take away their money.
Yet, the change is palpable. At Tilonia, a woman named Ganeshi walks into the local post office to withdraw money from her MGNREGA account. This is the first time she has stepped out her house to conduct a financial transaction. “We have around 3,500 accounts of MGNREGA workers in this post office and a majority of them belong to women. They mostly come alone to collect their payments and have learnt to manage their accounts on their own,” says Birdi Chand who is in charge of the post office.
This is the third of a five-part MGNREGA status report.
Next: MGNREGA in Andhra Pradesh has established a new delivery model and has been among the success stories of the programme.