In its recent press release, the NREGA Sangharsh 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 budget for Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for 2018-19 is ₹55,000 crores – the same as the previous year’s in monetary terms (the initial budget of ₹48,000 crores for 2017-18 was supplemented with ₹7,000 crores in January 2018). While the 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 rural women uplift themselves 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 4-tier socio-economic-political system determined by familial line – in sinking order, the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (servants). The ‘untouchables’ (or the Dalits) were the people so low in social status that they were not included in the caste system at all – the so-called ‘outcastes’. The term ‘untouchables’ refers to their traditional degrading and ‘impure’ occupations that often involved handling dead matter or faeces. This resulted in them being considered as ‘polluting’. They were not to be touched, since Dalits were considered ‘unclean’ from their birth. Furthermore, they were portrayed as being perpetually filthy. Apparently, they could never escape their status.
According to Hindu scriptures, what is pure must be separated from what is impure. Following that logic, the ‘impure and untouchable’ Dalits are still forced to live in segregated areas in many villages and have to 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 often leads to upper caste people avoiding the presence of Dalits, can in itself be regarded as an act of shaming.
The practice of untouchability may be forbidden by the law in the Indian Constitution. But the social stigma, discrimination and social exclusion of Dalits remains, both at an institutional and a personal level, even today. The systematic exclusion has subjected the majority of Dalits to persistent poverty. Therefore, the Dalits are suffering from the double burden of being poor and their own identity. For Dalit women, the situation is even worse, as they suffer from the triple oppression of being poor, being female and being Dalits. Dalit women number 80.517 million, or approximately 48% of the total Dalit population, 16% of the total female population and 8% of the total Indian population.
The MGNREGA 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. Hence, MGNREGA is designed to transform rural livelihoods by implementing a rights-based approach to employment. Moreover, it mentions empowering rural women as an expected impact of the programme.
However, the ground realities show us a different picture.
Talking about Dalit women in the public domain, Rodrigues (1994) provides the following analogy, thus showing the double tag of impurity and shame connected both to being Dalit and being a 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 upper caste women had a higher probability of being employed than women from lower castes (Dalits, for instance). Further, the study showed that Dalit women had a maximum of 148 days of employment during a year (not under MGNREGA), while women from the higher castes had, on an average, 290 days of employment per year. Dalit women are also predominantly working within the agricultural sector – approximately 57% – as compared to the 29% of higher-caste-women employed in agriculture.
A World Bank study conducted in 2011 states that the labour market is among the most important sites of gender inequality – the struggle against which is critical to any attempt aimed at reducing poverty. Caste status 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 the occupational mobility for the non-caste, Dalit women.
Gender inequality is also a reason for women getting unequal pay for equal work. Even among the poor, women contribute to a major part of the disposable income. This is usually because many men tend to spend more on personal comforts, while women generally prefer to prioritise ensuring the welfare of 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 the Scheduled Castes (SCs) have higher work participation rates than men. A majority of women in India (79%) work in the agricultural sector, which is known for its exceptionally low wages. This could be a reflection of economic deprivation and poverty, because women from these castes are forced to accept any kind of employment and labour wages, simply to survive. Again, this can show how individuals from vulnerable social groups are driven into forced labour, thereby 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 discrimination at multiple levels. Dalits, specifically Dalit women, are often denied the rights each citizen is entitled to. This makes the battle for fair working conditions not only about wages, but also about human dignity.
The social background of MGNREGA workers (as shown in many scientific studies) reveals that a significant number of beneficiaries belong to the lowest strata of society (in economic as well as social terms). Therefore, the self-targeting (self-selecting) element of the scheme works in the right direction.
When it comes to the unemployment of women in rural areas, different states show different tendencies.
1. As some reports about Kerala state, among rural women, the unemployment rate decreased significantly during the period from 2004-05 to 2009-10. As per these reports, these trends can be attributed to MGNREGA among other government schemes. It has also been witnessed that the implementation of the MGNREGA in Kerala benefitted due to the innovative inclusion of the existing program “Kudumbasree”.
2. In the case of Tamil Nadu, women constitute a majority of the workforce. Women are involved in different layers of the MGNREGA implementation in Tamil Nadu (sizeable numbers in the form MGNREGA staff at the GP and Block levels as work site supervisors – Makkal Nala Panniyalars, or MNPs, data entry operators and so on). The 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 MGNREGA. 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 report that MGNREGA has been only source of income for them for the last few months. However, availability of drinking water, food and childcare facilities have been found to be absent, resulting either in the low participation of women with children, or women being forced not to carry their children to the work sites.
3. Even though the participation of Dalit women in Madhya Pradesh has increased over the years, they are still among the poorest in India and are most vulnerable to exploitation.
4. In Uttar Pradesh, it was found that single women were completely denied work, while upper caste women could not work outside their homes, as it might not be ‘dignified’ and for fear of shame.
The MGNREGA has provisions for providing equal wages to both men and women, making it a rather gender-sensitive public welfare scheme of its kind, expanding the wage opportunities for women. Local governments are the implementing agencies. Availability of work at local level, regularity and predictability of working hours, lower chances of work conditions being exploitative, better wages than other jobs and the work being socially acceptable and ‘dignified’ are certain features of the MGNREGA which are supposed to provide women a better earning possibility.
According to the general perception, providing a parity of wages between women and men under the MGNREGA has been regarded as a measure sufficient enough for addressing the gender issues in poverty reduction. Consequently, the questions directed at ensuring gender equality and in the management and controlling of the productive assets created by the MGNREGA, have often been seen as a distraction and a diversion. Although there is a huge scope of further studies to seek the interplay between caste, class and gender factors in the rural wage market, schemes like the MGNREGA have shown us a light. With its effective implementation, there is a chance of surpassing the divide. After all, intent alone has never been a satisfactory condition for achieving this.