Kolkata: There were few takers among women in West Bengal for jobs granted under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) in the fiscal year ended March.

Women took up only 33% of the 153.4 million man-days of jobs granted in West Bengal under the scheme, much lower than the national average, which was at 47-48%.

In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, women accounted for 85% and 81%, respectively of jobs provided under MNREGS in fiscal 2010.

Failed effort: MNREGS workers dredging a water body at Hasnan village in West Bengal’s Hooghly district. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

The demand for jobs under MNREGS has traditionally been low among women in West Bengal, and there’s been no remarkable improvement even after the state, in 2007, allowed women to work 15% less than men for the same pay.

Experts attribute this to the success of state-supported entrepreneurship schemes under which women form so-called self-help groups, or SHGs, and engage in a variety of economic activities such as farming, animal husbandry, food processing, knitting and production of natural fabrics.

There are at least be 920,000 SHGs in West Bengal, providing employment to eight million women, according to the state government.

“For a woman, working with a self-help group is considered more respectable than building roads and digging wells," said Abhirup Sarkar, professor of economics at Kolkata’s Indian Statistical Institute. “Hence the poor response to MNREGS jobs among women in West Bengal."

The demand for jobs among women is remarkably low in districts that have a substantial Muslim population such as Murshidabad and South 24 Parganas, according to West Bengal’s minister for rural development Anisur Rahaman.

In Murshidabad, women accounted for only 9% of the jobs provided under MNREGS in 2009-10; in South 24 Parganas, it was around 11.5%.

“Muslim women are normally not encouraged to take up jobs that demand a lot of physical labour," Rahaman added.

To be sure, Kerala, too, has a sizeable Muslim population, yet demand for MNREGS jobs from among women in the state was among the highest in India.

The participation of tribal women in West Bengal, however, is much better, and this is because in districts such as Purulia and Bankura there’s little scope for alternative employment. In both these districts, women took up at least 40% of the jobs provided under the scheme.

Tribal women in these economically backward districts earn as little as Rs30 a day gathering leaves and firewood, whereas the Centre pays Rs100 a day for jobs provided under MNREGS, Rahaman said.

Another deterrent could be delayed payments, according to an official of the rural development department, who did not want to be identified.

“At times, people have to wait for up to three months to receive payment," he said. “People who seek employment under the scheme are daily wage earners. They can’t afford to wait so long. So even if the men take up jobs under the scheme, they make sure that their spouses earn something daily from working with, say, a self-help group, even if it is less than what the Centre pays for MNREGS jobs."

To encourage women in West Bengal to take up more jobs under MNREGS, the state government plans to reward those who regularly take up jobs under the scheme, Rahaman said.