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How The ‘Right To Work’ Became Rural India’s COVID-19 Lifeline

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By Kaajal Joshi

As India and the world grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, the persons most disproportionately affected, predictably, are the poor and the marginalised. India saw harrowing images of thousands of migrant labourers and their families trudging back hundreds of kilometres to their villages away from the larger towns and metropolises.

They had lost their daily wage jobs due to the lockdown imposed by the government and thus lost their primary sources of livelihood and sustenance. The villages they’ve returned to are not well equipped to tide them through this crisis.

With the initial imposition of the pandemic-related lockdown, India’s long distressed rural economies faced another jolt—delayed harvests, restrictions on crop transportation, and temporary closures of agricultural markets.

Estimates state that 70% of rural households report a drop in household income, and 78% of those surveyed reported their work “coming to a standstill”. With approximately 65.5% of India’s population living in rural areas—of which currently an estimated 30% lives below the poverty line—the loss of livelihoods has also had severe impacts on food security, health, and education.

In a widely circulated news story, a teacher in Rajasthan with a Masters degree who couldn’t work during the lockdown turned to a government scheme called the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as a source of income.

As India gradually “unlocks”, the main sources of sustenance for the rural poor remain government-provided rations and social security schemes, the largest of which is MGNREGA. As the name implies, it guarantees paid employment for 100 days in a year to all rural households, where workers perform unskilled, manual labour on “works” or projects related to agricultural and overall rural infrastructure/asset creation.

One of the key features of this Act is revealed through its origins. Passed in 2005, it was initially piloted in 200 of the poorest districts in the country, gradually scaling up nationwide by 2008. By 2015, the World Bank described it as the largest social security scheme in the world. An important thing to note about MGNREGA is that obtaining work under this programme is a right/entitlement, not a benefit.

MGNREGA is not just a guarantor of employment. The way the Act is structured addresses various aspects of socio-political and economic relevance in the Indian context. The scheme is demand-based, which means that people who register for employment under the scheme must be provided work within a stipulated time period and paid an unemployment allowance, thus assuring them at least some income.

A minimum 1/3rd of all workers at a job site must be women, which facilitates female labour force participation. Gram Sabhas and other Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) are the main drivers of implementing the Act. Their duties range from determining the projects/works to be undertaken, executing at least 50% of them, monitoring and implementing the works.

Making PRIs the local nodal agencies facilitates local governance and agency in determining what structures and infrastructure are needed in the village to meet the community’s needs. The programme also provides for information disclosure, transparency, and accountability through information boards in each village, a regularly updated Management and Information System (MIS) to track asset creation, job cardholders and wage payments, and periodic social audits conducted by PRIs to assess the implementation of the scheme overall.

The government’s own internal evaluations, as well as evaluations by various academics and civil society stakeholders, present a mixed picture of the effectiveness of the scheme in terms of meeting its main objectives—employment provision and rural development. MGNREGA Sameeksha 1 and 2 reports have demonstrated that MGNREGA created works and assets that are useful to communities and that their quality has been increasing over the last 20 years.

They also show that MGNREGA has helped provide agricultural workers and small- and medium-sized farm owners work and income during agriculturally lean months. MGNREGA has also helped reduce migration due to lack of work in the short term, increased women’s labour force participation in rural areas, raised rural wages overall, enabled workers to avoid hazardous work, and helped them provide better education for their children. The scheme has, thus, been useful in alleviating rural distress.

Image source: Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicine/Flickr.

However, as with most large government schemes in India, there are gaps in implementation, and plugging them is crucial to provide meaningful and effective relief during this pandemic. Delays in wage payments and non-payment of past dues, unavailability of adequate work, exclusion due to lack of access to banks and Aadhar cards, and technical glitches resulting in payments to incorrect bank accounts are some of the long-standing issues with the scheme.

Further, returning migrant workers are adding to the job demand in villages. At a higher level of grievance, MGNREGA wages have consistently been lower than the minimum wage for agricultural workers in almost all States and Union Territories’ since 2009. Even during the pandemic, MGNREGA workers have been agitating for higher wage rates and more workdays.

Image source: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr.

The government has recognised the need to strengthen MGNREGA and has raised the allocation for this year’s MGNREGA budget to ₹100,000 crores in its Atmanirbhar Bharat stimulus package. Acknowledging the need to protect urban livelihoods as well, talks are underway to introduce a similar scheme for smaller towns.

The earlier mentioned story of the teacher who could turn to MGNREGA for a job at this time highlights the best-case scenario of how this programme can work—however, the reliability of MGNREGA as a social security provision hinges on its proper implementation.

PRIA conducted a survey of returning migrants in panchayats of Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. While 71% received work, they faced significant difficulties related to delayed wage payments, delays in inclusion in job cards, lack of access to bank accounts and incorrect entries in the muster rolls.

The immediate priority of both central and state governments must therefore be to ensure that the current demand for work under MGNREGA is met; that MGNREGA work is not denied to people solely on the basis of the lack of an Aadhar card; that people get to cash in hand/ or their bank account in time; and that proper precautions for the health and safety of workers are taken at work sites.

These gaps are especially disempowering during this pandemic and need to be addressed rapidly to mitigate the additional distress faced by rural Indians. Further, addressing these implementation gaps will make the scheme meaningful in essence—as a guarantor of work and dignified living in times of need that also helps augment rural living standards.

Originally published here on PRIA’s blog.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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