Bhavana Devi, or Bhuri, as she is known by people in the village of Kerpura in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district, cheerfully opens the rusted iron doors to her home. Sunlight streams in. It lights up her dwelling, one small cement-and-brick box with a damaged tin sheet for the roof. A coat of paint is an unaffordable luxury for Bhuri, who does not have toilets or a water tap.
Bhuri is a 30-something, single mother to two children, who are now at a residential school thanks to the efforts of Aajeevika Bureau, an Udaipur-based nonprofit. It was impossible for Bhuri to shoulder the burdens of housework, daily wage labour and child care all alone.
Bhuri struggles to find jobs in the middle of this semi-arid desert. But this year, it got worse.
During this year’s long-running heatwave, Bhuri relentlessly took on daily wage work when the average temperature was 43-45 degrees Celsius and many parts of Rajasthan touched 50 degrees Celsius.
Over the period of a year, up to March this year, a sizable chunk of Bhuri’s income came from India’s largest workfare programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGS. She worked for 95 out of 100 days, over the financial year April 2021 to March 2022, guaranteed by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
But April 2022 onwards, things changed. The new financial year of the programme started with delays and this overlapped with the heatwave. Bhuri told Mongabay, “I didn’t get called for work even though I applied multiple times. I didn’t get even one day’s work.”
The heatwave in India, according to scientists has a 1% chance of happening each year, but is 30 times more likely to happen because of human-induced climate change. As women like Bhuri adapt to these impacts of climate change in their areas, they rely on rural guarantee scheme and daily wage work as a safety net. But the workfare programme is letting them down.
The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released earlier this year noted with certainty that heat waves will increase and occur with more frequency.
India’s economy is highly dependent on heat-exposed labour with an overwhelming 75% of the labour force, close to 380 million people, toiling under the sun and accounting for nearly 50% of the country’s gross domestic product.
Estimates show 75% of Indian districts, home to over 638 million people, are hotspots of extreme climate events such as cyclones and floods, and droughts and heat. Over the decades, unviable agricultural prospects in rural areas have forced men to migrate to cities in search of jobs. Women are often left-behind.
The International Labour Organization notes that climate change impacts, combined with differences in social and economic roles and responsibilities exacerbate the vulnerability of women and children.
Ritu Bharadwaj, Principal Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, said programmes like MGNREGS can build climate resilience by keeping the most vulnerable from falling into poverty. But this is not fully utilised. There are operational and administrative deficiencies that keep these programs out of reach of the most vulnerable.
“Women are at the frontline of the economy and climate change. They are vulnerable, but it’s not just an issue of gender but also intersectionality that cuts across castes and class,” said Anjal Prakash, Research Director, Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.
Surveys show the programme reduced poverty by up to 32% and prevented 14 million people from falling into poverty between 2004-’05 and 2011-’12.
The current poverty line in India is at Rs 150 per person a day and work under MGNREGS can offer women around Rs 160-Rs 200 a day. That is around Rs 17,000-Rs 22,000 a year for 100 days of work. However, in 2021-’22, over 71 million households worked under the scheme but only 4.9 million or 3.29% completed 100 days, government data shows.
Despite a high demand for jobs, the MGNREGS budget was slashed by more than 25% this year.
Since its implementation, researchers note that the scheme has empowered women, and has doubled up as a safety net for those impacted by natural calamities or even the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 59.74% of the annual person-days were paid to women in 2020-’21.
The government immediately offers extra MGNREGS working days and other relief support after “head-line grabbing” water-based events such as post-floods or cyclones, Bharadwaj observed. No such announcements are made through slow-onset events such as droughts, which go unreported in most cases.
In over a decade of heatwaves that Rajasthan has suffered, the government has never offered compensation for lost wages or work, said Mukesh Goswami of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the Rajasthan-based civil society organisation that helped create a demand for MGNREGA at a national level.
He pointed out that drought-hit areas are entitled to 50 additional days of work under the scheme. But this is not implemented. There have been year-long delays in declaring droughts and budget cuts too.
Mongabay-India contacted the Ministry of Rural Affairs, which is responsible for MNREGS, for a comment but did not receive a response.
Factoring in extreme weather
Several women Mongabay-India spoke to in Udaipur, Jaipur and Ajmer districts of Rajasthan said that wages from the rural guarantee scheme greatly helped them in purchasing essentials such as groceries and medicines. But they never got full wages nor 100 days of work.
Mohini Bai in her mid-forties, lives in Patiya, Udaipur district. Her husband migrates to nearby towns for work. Mohini has her hands full with her four children, the small family farm and livestock, and the multiple trips she makes to fetch water from a stream 500 metres away.
Her experience with the scheme has been bitter. She worked a few days last year but was not paid her dues. She too struggles to get her name on the muster roll. When pressed, she said that those who are granting the jobs are from a different caste group. Her experience echoes Bhuri’s, who also comes from a scheduled tribe, as well as several other women’s.
Additionally, Bharadwaj said that for some women, bank transfers – the current mode of payment in the scheme – worsens their access to wages in times of distress. It is difficult for women to brave the summer heat to access their accounts if there is no ATM or bank near their house. Often, women who are not financially literate are cheated, adding another layer of vulnerability.
Despite the strong evidence of climate impacts, the state and central governments are not ready to combat these issues as there are institutional changes required to fight against, Prakash said.
“It’s like people are getting used to the heat. Hardly any state in India even provides MGNREGS workers a shade let alone worksite facilities,” Goswami said. During summer, workers avoid working in the heat by starting before dawn and finishing by late mornings.
“We need an MGNREGS plus. We need to move on from such a knee-jerk solution, as this can’t go on for years. People need to be upskilled, we need agro-based or other industries set up in the vulnerable areas so that people have alternate employment,” Prakash explained, advocating for district level social protection programmes that take localised impacts of climate change into account.
Goswami too said that during heatwaves, the nature of work has to change. “We need to provide work which can be done in some shade. The working conditions are inhuman. How does one work in 49-50C ?” he asked.
There’s also a lack of convergence of India’s climate adaptation goals with social welfare programmes, Bharadwaj said.
Prakash explained, currently none of India’s social protection programmes have a climate angle. These are general programmes protecting people from different vulnerabilities. But given India’s diverse ecological zones, the impacts are different, and a one-size fits all social protection programme won’t work, and there’s a need to re-evaluate programmes from a climate lens.
Bharadwaj said there is an urgent need for heatwave and drought early warning systems, like India has for floods and cyclones. While the India Meteorological Department declared heatwaves and kept updating people, it was not early enough as it caught people unaware and affected their livelihood, she said.
One solution, she said, was to provide anticipatory wages or at least compensation for the loss of wages in heat- and drought-stressed areas. “Why wait after the people have suffered to declare drought, and allocate work months later?”
Heat a health hazard
As monsoon was setting in, it was a little cooler in Udaipur. But the memory of the unprecedented summer was fresh in Bhuri’s mind, and her body.
In the unbearably hot summer, Bhuri developed a severe stomach ache. She was unable to fetch water for herself and ran out of groceries. After a visit to a private clinic and spending Rs 4,000 on scans, she was told she had kidney stones.
Heatwaves trigger dehydration and studies show they are linked to increased occurrence of kidney stones. While there may have been other causes, no one around Bhuri told her heat could have contributed to this. She was given the generic advice: “Drink more water.”
At one point, the heat and Bhuri’s health no longer allowed her to manage the three goats as she could not forage for fodder. Then in early July, she gave up. She loaded the goats in a rented tempo for a final ride with them, and headed to her mother’s house. She gave up one of her few sources of income over to her relatives. Through the summer her expenses increased and socio-economic vulnerability worsened.
Now, even MGNREGS doesn’t appeal to Bhuri. Since the series of setbacks, she needs cash for her day’s meals. The fortnightly wait for the wages will leave her famished. She prefers to work for anyone who gives daily wages, even if it’s a little less or if the hours are longer.
For now, Rajasthan is treating Bhuri well, until next summer. She said, “My state is such that even if life is difficult and it’s very hot outside, I have to keep working.”
This article was first published on Mongabay.