The year that Chanchal Kumari was born was the year of the drought in Rajasthan – 2002. For two years, the state had a severe water shortage – no water for drinking or even sowing the crops, the cattle perishing.
Her family was on the brink of hunger. Her father, Raju Singh, a wage worker, had to leave their village to look for work outside the state. As livelihoods collapsed all around, the clamour for an employment generation programme grew. Chanchal’s family also joined the movement.
Chanchal is from Rajsamand district in southern Rajasthan, which has a history of social mobilisation driven by grassroots organisations. The district has led the campaigns for the right to information and the right to work.
It was the latter campaign that culminated with the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA (earlier known as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in 2005. MGNREGA, the world’s largest employment guarantee programme, drew inspiration from the Employment Guarantee Scheme, which was introduced in Maharashtra after a period of drought in the 1970s.
This year too, the region has received very little rainfall. “Without Nrega, we would not be able to survive. It helps women feed their families,” Chanchal said with a self-assurance that is unusual in a 20-year-old.
When IndiaSpend met Chanchal in July, she was supervising the digging of trenches for conserving rainwater during the monsoon. Since the past year, she has been working as an MGNREGA mate, or worksite supervisor. Her four brothers work in the catering sector in cities in Gujarat.
As a mate, it is her job to record the attendance of workers on an application on her mobile phone and allot work on a daily basis. There were nearly 80 workers at the digging site, over 70 of them women armed with pickaxes.
Chanchal’s appointment as a mate is part of an innovation introduced recently in states like Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to appoint more women as MGNREGA mates and put them at the front and centre of the programme in which women participate in higher numbers than men.
In 2021-’22, women constituted 54.54% of the MGNREGA workforce, according to the Ministry of Rural Development. Yet, mate positions at worksites have always been appropriated by men who control funds and decision-making.
At three other sites that IndiaSpend visited in Udaipur and Rajsamand districts, women – almost all in their twenties – were undergoing training and working as mates. Digital literacy is a prerequisite for the job, and in rural India a majority of women lack access to digital devices and skills.
Rajasthan has been a top performing state on MGNREGA and, earlier this year, rolled out an urban job guarantee scheme. With the increased focus on the need for employment generation since the pandemic, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand have also introduced urban wage employment programmes.
Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, has the lowest rates of participation of women in MGNREGA and is training women mates for the last one year to ensure that women are active stakeholders and not just labour on worksites. It might be working: data from the state show that women’s participation has increased from 33.59% in 2020-’21 to 37.7% in 2022-’23. Women mates have also brought in more transparency, according to anecdotal evidence.
This is the second in IndiaSpend’s Women at Work 3.0 series looking at the post-Covid-19 reality for women in India’s female labour force.
The first part, here, showed that an uptick in women’s workforce participation in 2020-21 might be because women, desperate for jobs and an income, might be taking up poor quality, low paying jobs. The next part will look at how the increasing digitisation of jobs is impacting women.
MGNREGA: Bucking the trend
It is no secret that labour force participation of women in India has been in decline.
But contrary to that general decline, women’s workforce participation in MGNREGA has consistently bucked the trend. This can partly be attributed to the original mandate of the programme to give work to women through 33% reservation.
From the earliest days, women have participated in MGNREGA far more actively than in all other forms of recorded work. Research has shown that women’s share in work under MGNREGA is greater than their share of work in the labour market across all states.
Take for instance rural Rajasthan, which had 46.5% women (aged 15 and above) in the labour force between 2020-’21 according to the Periodic Labour Force Survey. For the same period, it haf 65.68% women engaged in MGNREGA work.
Safety net during Covid-19
Economic precarity and rising unemployment in post-Covid-19 India has led to a demand for work under the rural employment guarantee scheme which surged during the Covid-19 crisis by 40% in 2020-21, reinforcing its potential to be a lifeline for rural communities.
A study by the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, or IWWAGE, in 2021 to evaluate the effectiveness of the scheme during the 2020 lockdown demonstrated how the scheme’s effects effect on employment was higher for rural women than it was for rural men.
The rural employment guarantee scheme cushioned job losses by almost 100% for rural women and rural women’s employment increased by 74%, found the report. Its effect on rural men’s employment was positive though insignificant but, for rural women, MGNREGA stemmed employment losses and allowed women who were previously not in the labour force to enter the labour market during the crisis.
In the villages that IndiaSpend visited, there seemed to be a greater awareness of MGNREGA as a crucial buffer since the pandemic. But, the share of women in MGNREGA fell in the years 2020-’21 and 2021-’22 with the increased participation of men in the programme as a result of continued distress in the rural labour market.
“Our husbands returned home without jobs, MGNREGA saved our families,” said many of the women at the worksites, as they demanded that the government increase their wages, increase the number of workdays and open more worksites.
What draws women to MGNREGA
“MGNREGA work is perceived as government work and thus considered respectable for women. Families that may not allow women to work in construction or other casual labour work support them to work in MGNREGA. Besides, women feel safer as they work in large groups of women from their own villages,” said Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and centre director at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, who has done research on MGNREGA and gender transformation. “The biggest contribution of MGNREGA is that it has made paid work accessible and acceptable for many women in the country.”
There are a few factors, both “push” and “pull”, that have led to the steady rise in women’s participation in MGNREGA from 40% in 2006-’07.
The deepening crisis in agriculture in India has led to shrinking availability of agricultural work and increased the dependence of rural households on MGNREGA work. While men have been able to earn from other employment opportunities, women have fallen back on MGNREGA.
One of the key objectives of MGNREGA was to prevent distress migration. Although it has not had any impact on the migration of men, the availability of MGNREGA work has mitigated distress migration by women and children.
Field studies in high out-migration districts in Rajasthan have shown women are more likely to engage in MGNREGA, which in turn decreased short-term distress migration of women and enhanced the well-being of their children.
The women that IndiaSpend met with were opposed to the idea of migrating with their husbands, despite the awareness that they would get higher wages in cities. They cited safety, better housing and responsibility towards family and agricultural land as their reasons to stay back.
MGNREGA stipulates equal wages for men and women. According to an analysis by IWWAGE on the earnings gap in India, self-employed women earn only about 30% to 40% of the income earned by self-employed men, while the gap among regular workers was 52% to 67%. The wage parity in MGNREGA ensures that women do not have to bargain for better wages.
By providing employment close to their homes, MGNREGA also makes work feasible for rural women who have limited opportunities for paid employment along with the burden of unpaid care work and domestic work.
With a master’s degree in political science, Meena Dangi is a participant in a training programme for MGNREGA mates in Udaipur as part of an initiative by the state government. Despite her education, Dangi said there weren’t many employment opportunities in her village on the outskirts of Udaipur. “It is not easy for women to migrate for work. But when I go back to my village, I will use this training to encourage women to demand their right to employment and wages and ask for better worksite facilities like creches, so that women with young children can also work.”
Women who would not otherwise be in the labour force end up working because of MGNREGA.
A study conducted across 10 districts in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in 2011 found only 30% of women recalled earning a cash income from a source other than MGNREGA, in the three months preceding the survey. Of the total women, 50% said that in the absence of MGNREGA they would have worked at home or would have remained unemployed.
Perhaps one of the most significant factors leading to women’s greater participation in MGNREGA is that men have ceded space as they migrate out of villages in search of work.
“Women are able to participate in it, as men who have higher mobility migrate to earn better wages. Men would not work in it unless there is no other option available to them, as we saw during the onset of Covid-19 when they returned to villages and took up MGNREGA work,” said Farzana Afridi, professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute and a MGNREGA researcher.
Her recent research looks at the potential role that MGNREGA could have with the increased risk of climate change and droughts, which will affect women more, as men are able to migrate and find non-farm work.
‘Feminisation of poverty’
Although the national average daily wage paid for MGNREGA work increased from Rs 153.67 in 2015-’16 to Rs 207.20 in 2021-’22, according to a study by the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis at Ashoka University, wages continue to be extremely low, with great variations in states, from Rs 204 per day in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to Rs 331 per day in Haryana.
MGNREGA wages are lower than even minimum wages for agriculture in 17 out of 21 major states.
There is also a perpetual shortage of work under the scheme along with delay in payments. Though the scheme assures 100 days of work to every rural household, the study by the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis showed, between 2015-’16 and 2020-’21, the highest average employment per registered household was 22 days in 2020-’21.
The impact is felt most by women. They agree to work for lower wages and their earnings under MGNREGA are seen as sufficient to meet their minimal cash requirements. To encourage women to participate, childcare facilities and crèches at worksites are required, but overlooked.
The higher participation of women under MGNREGA has been referred to as the “feminisation of poverty” by several academics over the years. MGNREGA work is hard manual labour at minimum wages and is a fallback option for rural women who have the least opportunities to access decent work.
“There isn’t enough work for rural women in family farms. Even though MGNREGA work cannot sustain their families, it provides them with protection,” said Desai.
“Men are ashamed to take up this work,” is a common refrain heard across villages.
Lakshmi Bai, 45, a worker at the site that Chanchal Kumari was supervising, never had the opportunity to study and had not thought it would be possible for her to go out to work. The family has a small farm and her husband works as a construction labourer in the nearest town.
To support her children’s education, she took up MGNREGA work, for which she is paid Rs 251 per day. “Whatever I earn is spent at home and I don’t manage to save. The government must increase our wages,” she said.
Lakshmi Bai is a member of a union organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a worker-led organisation that campaigns for rights-based legislation. “MGNREGA was not anticipated as a gender transformative programme, but that is what it has become. It gives women an identity of their own, earlier they were only seen only as the ‘wife of’ or ‘daughter of’ [someone],” said Shankar Singh, co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which has been campaigning for an increase in wages. “Cost of living has gone up but MGNREGA wages remain the same. How is a household to sustain itself on Rs 200 a day?”
Financial inclusion, autonomy
When it started, MGNREGA wages were deposited to common household bank accounts, operated mostly by the men of the household. In 2012, the Union government mandated that MGNREGA wages would be deposited directly to the bank accounts of workers to avoid corruption and leakages.
It is women who benefited the most from this as they could control the wages they earn. Research shows access to paid employment increases women’s bargaining power within the household and is critical for enhancing their economic and social status.
A 2019 study by a team of researchers in partnership with J-Pal South Asia and Inclusion Economics India Centre at Krea University examined the impact of giving women control over MGNREGA earnings on their willingness to work and their ability to have a greater say in household decisions in Madhya Pradesh.
The study confirmed that women who received direct deposits of wages in their bank accounts along with training on running their newly-opened bank accounts stayed for longer in the labour force and became more empowered.
At Peepla village near Kumbalgarh Fort, IndiaSpend met with Ratni Bai at a MGNREGA worksite. There were 20 workers, all women at the site, planting saplings on top of a hill. Ratni Bai was one of a handful of women at the site to own a mobile phone; most women said they could not afford one and, if they did have one, used it only for emergencies.
Ratni Bai bought the phone on instalments by taking on additional work as a farm labourer. “Earlier my husband would not support me. Now that I’m adding to our income, he encourages me to work,” she said. But she still does not know how to operate her bank account, and to withdraw money, she takes the help of the e-Mitra in her village.
“These women are first-time workers and they find their voice when they leave home. It changes their equation with their husbands,” said Manju Rajput who leads the Family Empowerment Programme at Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights’ organisation in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
Earlier this month, MGNREGA workers from all over the country gathered in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to protest against low wages and delays in payments. This has been a long-standing demand from workers, the difference this time was that a majority of protestors were women. “Women are staking claim to the programme,” said Rajput.
Back in her village, Chanchal Kumari muses on her future. The job of a MGNREGA mate is a pit-stop, she said. Like her brothers, she too wants to leave the village and take up training as a nurse. She is saving for it. “This is not my work of choice, but if it was not for this work, my family would have got me married.”
This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.