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'The soul of women and life of the poor': Five women explain why MNREGA works for them

The rural jobs guarantee scheme completes 10 years this month.

The world’s biggest public works programme completes 10 years this month. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was enacted in September 2005, with the purpose of guaranteeing 100 days of employment in villages to any household willing to do manual work at minimum wage. It started from 200 districts in February the next year. Under this law, any adult residing in the rural parts can demand work from the government and is entitled to get it within 15 days. If the government fails in this duty, the worker is entitled to an unemployment allowance. Over its life, MNREGA has had many successes, particularly the way it has benefited women workers.

1. Radha Devi Paswan, Gram Panchayat Aamgachi, Block Sikti Araria, Bihar

Radha Devi Paswan has left a mark in Aamgachi as the only panchayat representative who carries earth on her head and earns her wages under the rural employment scheme. It is this hard work and integrity that have won her the villagers’ respect. Both Radha Devi and her husband Deepnarayan Paswan didn’t go to school, but their knowledge and alertness about their rights under MNREGS is striking. The two have organised around 100 workers, most of them landless Dalits like Radha Devi Paswan, into an informal group to systematically demand work under the job guarantee scheme.

The group has fought together to demand work and fight graft in the scheme. Recently, they said, a new MNREGA staffer in Aamgachi panchayat demanded money for making wage payments to the villagers. The group refused. Instead, they pressured officials to make him publicly apologise and eschew graft.

On a weekday in late January, at a MNREGA worksite in Araria, Radha Devi credited the scheme with liberating several landless agricultural workers from the tyranny of the local zamindars.

“MNREGA is a boon,” said Radha Devi, who believes the scheme was instrumental in her election win as a ward member. “Several persons in our work group got their full entitlements of 100 days of work. People elected me because we had together fought for our entitlement to work and were able to get work and a wage. Workers realised that our representative should be one of us.”

Though she works a few months a year under the rural job guarantee scheme, she has continued to work as an agricultural labourer. “The wage from farm work ensures we get enough to eat, MNREGA wage helps us buy additional things,” she said. And what are these additional things? “My husband and I have spent wages from MNREGA on buying green vegetables and saag (spinach). We have spent it on our children’s education and on covering our medical expense.”

“There is no bhukhmari (starvation) in the village because of MNREGA,” she said. Above all, says adds, MNREGA has given rural workers dignity.

Radha Devi (second from right) is a landless Dalit MNREGA worker who organised workers to demand their entitlements.
Radha Devi (second from right) is a landless Dalit MNREGA worker who organised workers to demand their entitlements.

2. Roshni Guriya, Pakartoli, Husir Panchayat, Khunti district, Jharkhand

Roshni Guriya lives in a village nestled deep in Khunti, a forested and Naxalism-affected district in Jharkhand. Her views on MNREGA have been shaped by two stints of working under the scheme. The first time was in 2011, when the landless woman built bunds with others in the village. At the start, she said she was unclear on the wage rate, who would pay the wages and how. She eventually moved to Mumbai in 2012 with her husband and two children because she felt that staying back in the village would only mean more hunger and unemployment.

The family returned to the village in 2014, because the health of Roshni and her children deteriorated after working long hours in Mumbai. Back in Khunti, she joined a self-help group organised by the NGO Pradan. “That was when I worked with everyone in the gram sabha to prepare a work plan for the village,” said Roshni Guriya. “Initially, the rozgaar sewika was refusing to accept our work demand but we pressured her collectively, and even got her to provide us a receipt of our work application. The muster roll was opened and we managed to get a work order.”

Since 2014, Roshni Guriya has worked on a number of things – digging three ponds in the village, levelling fields, and building farm bunds. Together, she and her husband have earned Rs 14,000 in wages from their household MNREGA card. She says with this money, she has been able to buy a mobile phone and invest in her children’s schooling. Also thanks to the money, there has been a change in the family diet – from eating only rice and dal, they have graduated to chapattis and green vegetables.

Roshni Guriya says the biggest advantage of having the 100-days job guarantee in the village is that she is able to take better care of her children. “Who would have looked after the children inside the workshop in Mumbai? But in the village, there is a crèche near the MNREGA worksite and someone responsible from the village to take care of my child.”

Working under MNREGA has helped in other ways too. “Earlier, when there was a constant shortage of money, my husband and I were more stressed and fought over small issues. Now my husband gives his wage to me to keep and this has increased my say in the decision-making in our family.”

Roshani Gudiya sits by a farm pond completed under MGNREGA.
Roshani Gudiya sits by a farm pond completed under MGNREGA.

3. Radhabai Chandrakant Kunwar, Aamlon village, Peth block, Nashik, Maharashtra

Radhabai Kunwar and her husband couldn’t sustain their 15-member family on farming alone. They own barely 2 acres of land and it lacks irrigation facilities. So leaving their aged parents and infants behind, the couple would travel to the nearby town of Ozar to look for work as construction workers. “I worked on construction sites, but I felt unhappy staying away from my home, family and cattle,” she said. Finding work locally was constantly on her mind.

From that state of uncertainty, Radhabai Kunwar has come a long way. She is no longer a wageworker with a precarious grip on her livelihood but a self-assured elected panchayat representative. Peth block in Nashik, where she lives, has implemented job guarantee scheme projects worth Rs 1 crore a year.

The first work the villagers took up under MNREGA with the aid of a local NGO, Pragati Abhiyan, was road construction. “Villagers filed work application in 2007, but work on the road began only in 2009 after getting approval,” Radhabai said. “At first, 72 villagers worked for 15 workdays at wages of Rs 150 per day. Over the years, we have built wells, check dams and the list of work has increased with every year.” She says she worked under MNREGA and persuaded other women in her neighbourhood to do the same by clarifying their doubts. Radhabai raised demands for supportive facilities at the worksite like a crèche, shade, and a medical kit.

When the Gram Panchayat elections were announced with the post reserved for a woman, several villagers pushed Radhabai to contest. As sarpanch, she says she has implemented MNREGA systematically, balancing employment needs with the village’s development needs. She understands the difficulties in migration and wants to ensure that villagers are not forced to leave in distress. “New projects should be planned such that they benefit the village in the long run,” she said.

Radhabai Kunwar, an MNREGA worker and the village sarpanch.
Radhabai Kunwar, an MNREGA worker and the village sarpanch.

4. Naurti Bai, Ajmer, Rajasthan

Naurti Bai has several honours to her name. She is the first Dalit woman sarpanch from her village, and as a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, she is one of the original fighters for MNREGA. Over the past 10 years, she says, the scheme has left a significant impact on her panchayat, Harmada – its women now have bank accounts. “Women earned money over which they had independent control,” said Naurti Bai. “They could have savings for the first time, with which they could take loans and buy cows and bullocks, or jewellery. NREGA gave women a chance to fulfil their dreams and it gave them dignity.”

She is aware there was a discussion last year on whether MNREGA should be ended or phased out. She said there are many problems with the scheme’s implementation and continuing irregularities. “But NREGA is the soul of women and the life of the poor.”

She remembers the time when the first job cards came to her village. “People used to say that it will run like any other programme. An officer came to check how it worked on the ground. He asked us what the wages were – I answered Rs 100. He said how do you know? I said I had fought for the law.”

So what is MNREGA’s future?

Naurti Bai wants NREGA to be stronger and better. “The government is reducing the budget, when they need to expand it. They don’t give us work even though we demand it.”

Another problem is the weakening of the scheme’s accountability measures. “Earlier they used to give receipts for form 6, nowadays they don’t give receipts. If we have receipts we can use it to pressure the government. Filing complaints and taking receipts are all extremely important. We need to learn this.”

NREGA zinda rakhna hai (We have to keep the scheme alive),” she stressed.

Naurti Bai, the former sarpanch of Hamara panchayat in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and one of the original fighters for MNREGA
Naurti Bai, the former sarpanch of Hamara panchayat in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and one of the original fighters for MNREGA

5. Uma Bhoi, Ghantabahali village, Malisira panchayat, Bolangir district, Odisha

Uma Bhoi, who is in her early 40s, comes from a poor Dalit family. Her village Ghantabahali lies in a drought-prone area of Bolangir in Odisha, where it is common for poor farmers and agricultural workers to migrate to brick kilns for several months every year.

Uma Bhoi and her husband too have migrated with their three children to look for work in lean farming seasons. But starting work under MNREGA five years ago has helped her supplement her income. “Last year I completed 150 days of work under the scheme. And this year, I have already completed 106.”

She has earned Rs 21,265 under the scheme this year. “Last year I bought four goats from my MGNREGA wages, now I have 12 goats,” said Bhoi. “In our village palli Sabha, I am now eligible to apply for a goat shed under a government scheme, which will let me further supplement my income to take care of my children. My older children are both in high school now.”

Uma Bhoi surveys a land in Bolangir, Odisha.
Uma Bhoi surveys a land in Bolangir, Odisha.

These interviews were conducted by the People’s Action for Employment Guarantee, which was set up in 2004 as a broad coalition of organisations and civil society members demanding an employment guarantee act.

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