Unable to find work under MGNREGA, women are marginalized in West Bengal

By Ritwika Mitra

North 24 Parganas, March 9 (IANS): It was some time ago in 2021 that Sarifa Bibi, in her late 50s, last managed to buy substantial groceries for her family, pay the electricity bill and buy a sari for herself and a shawl for her 17-year-old daughter, Aliknoor. That was when she managed to get 29 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). As the financial year draws to a close, Sarifa realizes that she is nowhere near 100 days of work – the minimum number of days of paid work the program guarantees per household.

The desperation is clear in Sarifa’s voice as she addresses 101Reporters from her home in the village of Habaspur. Their family had been forced to apply for a loan of Rs 9,000, at a high interest rate of Rs 3,500, to buy a smartphone for Aliknoor’s online lessons and to get an ultrasound scan for Aliknoor, who eventually had to waive their tuition due to pending fees.

“We are starving. There is no work,” said Sarifa, who supports her husband, three of her four children and a grandchild.

A program centered on women in vain

A labor law passed in 2005, MGNREGA aims to provide at least 100 working days per household in rural India every financial year. The law requires women to make up at least one-third of beneficiaries, which are families whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual labor. In fact, women make up the bulk of MGNREGA recipients across India – in Kerala it is as high as 90% and in West Bengal at least half of MGNREGA person-days go to women. Women-days in the year 2021-22 accounted for 46.58% of the total in the state, and in the North 24 Parganas in particular, the figure was 51.67% for the same year.

Three women – Pampa Sardar, Maya Sardar and Subhashi Sardar – from Rajendrapur in Basirhat Block 2 admit to the slight relief MGNREGA brought them after working for more than 30 days under the scheme a few years ago.

“Before, we were completely dependent on our husbands,” says Maya Sardar, whose husband is a daily wage earner while their son moved to Tamil Nadu in search of work. “As a family, we had no extra income and were always in debt to the local ration store. But that changed in 2019 when we started working and earning a living through the program. If our husbands bought rice, we would buy vegetables. might even think of spending a little on ourselves.”

However, while working papers indicate much higher participation of women in MGNREGA over the past 15 years than the prescribed 33%, this figure was at its lowest level in five years in 2020-2021, at 53.07 %. These figures from the Ministry of Rural Development allude to a rather worrying trend towards the feminization of poverty.

Inadequate funding

Economists and activists told 101Reporters that the Centre’s allocation of Rs 73,000 crore to MGNREGA in the Union budget for 2022 – of which more than Rs 18,350 crore was pending from the previous year – was far from the amount required for the proper implementation of the program. This deficiency is a systemic blow to the very backbone of the MGNREGA at the base.

Accusing the central government of “systematically underfunding” MGNREGA, development economist Jayati Ghosh pointed out that this had “led to further exclusion of women and an even greater increase in poverty and hunger”. .

“It’s also a macroeconomic disaster, further eroding mass consumer demand,” added Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in the US. “To deliver on the promise of 100 days of work for already registered households, the allowance must be at least four times the current Rs 73,000 crore.”

She further pointed out that women, in particular, tend to be excluded from employment opportunities when they are scarce.

“There was a higher proportion of women under MGNREGA earlier because it offered below-market wages. So fewer men were interested in those jobs back then. But now, in the middle of the widespread economic distress and lack of other livelihood opportunities, men are even seeking MGNREGA jobs,” she explained.

The current wage rate in West Bengal, for 2021-22, stands at Rs 213 per day.

Lack of transparency, arbitrary allocation of positions

More than two dozen women from villages in the Hasnabad block in northern 24 Parganas spoke to 101Reporters about the dearth of employment opportunities in the region. In addition to insufficient funding, the lack of transparency in the allocation of jobs also plays a significant role in worsening the rural crisis which has further marginalized women.

Ranjan Kumar Mondal, MGNREGA booth supervisor, said that once a program is launched, supervisors like him fill out and submit application forms to the panchayat office, and workers are often selected from those who have been enlisted earlier. In some cases, people are informed informally of jobs available in the area and their names passed on to the panchayat.

However, established standards require workers to apply directly to panchayat offices. Instead, the supervisors complete the forms themselves and submit the lists to the panchayat after the work is assigned. This lack of transparency leaves a significant proportion of people unemployed.

Additionally, members of the Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity (PBKMS) — an independent trade union in West Bengal that promotes the rights of agricultural workers to decent pay, work and food — highlighted the arbitrary way in which local governments often allocate jobs , which ultimately fails to meet the work demand.

“When we hold them accountable, there are only excuses,” said Suchitra Halder, a veteran PBKMS activist. “Lack of political will and party rivalries are the main reasons why work is not taking off in these areas.”

PBKMS State Committee Member Anuradha Talwar added, “The biggest issue in the coming year will be the fallout from the huge budget cut of MGNREGA by the current government. This will affect the availability of work, and in West Bengal, women are going to be the hardest hit, with men returning to migration.

Given how particularly difficult the past three years have been due to the pandemic and Cyclones Amphan and Yaas, Talwar warned of soaring rural distress and added, “MGNREGA will no longer be an option. that people can count on”.

Migration in search of employment

In the village of Murarisaha, at least seven women told 101Reporters about the huge loans – ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1.4 lakh – that their families had taken out to survive during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Several male members of their household were forced to migrate to other states in search of employment. Each of these women had a similar question: how could they make ends meet if all their family members stayed at home? Although they had work cards, there was no work for them in the area, which left them struggling to find a way to pay off their mounting debts.

“Why would people leave their villages if work was available there?” interviewed Dipali Tanti, a mother of three whose husband earns about Rs 9,000 a month working in an aquaculture business in Mumbai. “Our husbands had to migrate and we find ourselves alone with our children. There is no point in demanding work because we know there is none.”

Another local resident, Konica Sardar, echoed Tanti’s concerns, wondering how she would repay the two loans (Rs 1 lakh and Rs 40,000) that her family had sought to survive.

“My husband has gone to work in an embroidery factory in Tamil Nadu. In a few days my brother-in-law will also leave,” the 19-year-old said as she picked up her 2-year-old daughter. to feed her.

MGNREGA remains supply driven

Ravi Srivastava, director of the Center for Employment Studies at the Institute for Human Development, said that although MGNREGA was meant to be a demand-driven program, it remains supply-driven.

“The budget allocated to MGNREGA gives a strong signal to social plans and their implementation on the ground,” he explained. “A slow budget translates into delayed wages. This budget is not sensitive to the massive unemployment that persists. The idea that the budget would be increased with an increase in demand is impractical.”

“If you’re at the grassroots, you’ll find that rozgar sevak will let people know they can work when a program opens and funds are available. People don’t come looking for jobs at MGNREGA because they know there is none, until the rozgar sevak signals there is, and that only happens when there is a slowdown in the flow of funds,” Srivastava added. .

The panchayat appoints these rozgar sevaks and the supervisors on the worksites are called companions. These sevaks and rozgar companions are responsible for distributing the worksheets.

Maria D. Ervin