North 24 Parganas, March 9 (IANS/ 101Reporters) It was a while back in 2021 that Sarifa Bibi in her late 50s had last managed to purchase substantial groceries for her family, pay the electricity bill, and buy a sari for herself and a shawl for her 17-year-old daughter, Aliknoor. This was when she had managed to secure 29 days of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). With the financial year now drawing to a close, Sarifa now realises she is far from completing 100 days of work – the minimum number of days of paid labour that the scheme guarantees per household.
The desperation is clear in Sarifa’s voice, as she speaks to 101Reporters from her home in Habaspur village. Their family had been forced to seek a loan of Rs 9,000, at a steep interest of Rs 3,500, to buy a smartphone for Aliknoor’s online classes and to get ultrasonography for Aliknoor, who ultimately had to give up attending tuitions due to pending fees.
“We are starving. There is no work,” lamented Sarifa, who supports her husband, three of her four children and a grandchild.
A women-centric scheme to no avail
A labour law passed in 2005, MGNREGA aims to provide at least 100 days of work per household in rural India every financial year. The Act requires that women comprise at least one-third of the beneficiaries, which are families whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. In reality, women make up the bulk of MGNREGA allottees across India – in Kerala it’s as high as 90 per cent and in West Bengal, at least half of MGNREGA person-days go to women. The women person-days during the year 2021-22 was 46.58 per cent of the total in the state, and in North 24 Parganas in particular, the figure was at 51.67 per cent for the same year.
Three women – Pampa Sardar, Maya Sardar and Subhashi Sardar – from Rajendrapur in Basirhat 2 block admit the mild relief MGNREGA brought them after they received work for over 30 days under the scheme a few years ago.
“Earlier, we were completely dependent on our husbands,” said Maya Sardar, whose husband is a daily-wage earner, while their son relocated to Tamil Nadu in search of work. “As a family, we had no extra income and were always in debt at the local ration shop. But that changed in 2019, when we started working and earning under the scheme. If our husbands bought rice, we’d buy vegetables. We could even think of spending a little on ourselves.”
However, while working papers indicate much higher women’s participation under MGNREGA in the past 15 years than the mandated 33 per cent, this figure was at a five-year low in 2020-2021, at 53.07 per cent. These numbers from the Ministry of Rural Development allude to a rather worrying trend of feminisation of poverty.
Economists and activists told 101Reporters that the Centre’s allocation of Rs 73,000 crore to MGNREGA in the Union Budget for 2022 – of which over Rs 18,350 crore was pending from the previous year – was far from the amount required for the smooth implementation of the scheme. This inadequacy is a systemic blow to the very backbone of MGNREGA at the grassroots.
Accusing the Central government of “systematically underfunding” MGNREGA, development economist Jayati Ghosh emphasised that this had been “leading to further exclusion of women and an even greater rise in poverty and hunger”.
“It’s also a macroeconomic disaster, further eroding mass consumption demand,” added Ghosh, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in the US. “To meet the promise of 100 days of work for the households already registered, the allocation needs to be at least four times higher than the current Rs 73,000 crore.”
She further pointed out that women, in particular, tend to be excluded from job opportunities when they are scarce.
“There was a higher proportion of women under MGNREGA earlier because it offered lower wages than market rates. So fewer men were interested in these jobs back then. But now, amid widespread economic distress and lack of other livelihood opportunities, men are seeking out even MGNREGA jobs,” she explained.
The current rate of wages in West Bengal, for 2021-22, stands at Rs 213 per day.
Lack of transparency, arbitrary job allocation
Over two dozen women from the villages of Hasnabad block in North 24 Parganas spoke to 101Reporters about the dearth of employment opportunities in the region. Besides inadequate funding, lack of transparency in the allocation of jobs, too, plays a significant factor in the deepening rural crisis that has marginalised women even further.
Ranjan Kumar Mondal, an MGNREGA booth supervisor, said that once a scheme is launched, supervisors like him fill up and submit the application forms to the panchayat office, and that workers are often chosen from among those who were enlisted earlier. In some cases, people are informally notified about available work in the area, and their names are passed on to the panchayat.
However, the norms laid down dictate that workers be able to directly approach the panchayat offices. Instead, supervisors fill out the forms themselves and submit the lists to the panchayat once the work is allocated. This lack of transparency leaves a significant proportion of people unemployed.
Moreover, members of the Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity (PBKMS) – an independent trade union in West Bengal that promotes the rights of agricultural workers to decent wages, work and food – highlighted the arbitrary manner in which local administrations often allocate jobs, which ultimately fails to meet the demand for work.
“When we demand accountability from them, there are only excuses,” said Suchitra Halder, a senior activist of the PBKMS. “The lack of political will and rivalries among parties are the primary reasons why work does not take off in these areas.”
Anuradha Talwar, a state committee member of the PBKMS, added: “The biggest problem in the coming year is going to be the fallout from the current government’s huge reduction in the MGNREGA budget. It will affect the availability of work, and in West Bengal, women are going to be the worst hit. Men are going back to migration.”
Given how particularly challenging the past three years have been due to the pandemic and cyclones Amphan and Yaas, Talwar warned of soaring rural distress and added, “MGNREGA will no longer be an option for people to rely on”.
Migration in search of employment
In Murarisaha village, at least seven women spoke to 101Reporters about the enormous loans – ranging between Rs 30,000 and Rs 1.4 lakh – their families had taken to survive during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Several male members of their households had been forced to migrate to other states in search of employment. Each of these women had a similar question: how would they make ends meet if all their family members remained at home? Although they had job cards, there was no work in the area for them, leaving them struggling to find a way to pay off their mounting debts.
“Why would people leave their villages if work was made available there?” questioned Dipali Tanti, a mother of three whose husband earns around Rs 9,000 per month from working at an aquaculture company in Mumbai. “Our husbands have had to migrate, and we are left alone with our children. There is no point in demanding work as we know there is none.”
Another local resident, Konica Sardar, echoed Tanti’s concerns, wondering how they would pay back the two loans (Rs 1 lakh and Rs 40,000) her family had sought to survive.
“My husband left to work in an embroidery factory in Tamil Nadu. In a few days, my brother-in-law will leave, too,” said the 19-year-old, as she picked up her 2-year-old daughter to feed her.
MGNREGA remains supply-driven
Ravi Srivastava, director of the Centre for Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development, said that though MGNREGA was supposed to be a demand-driven scheme, it remains supply-driven.
“The budget allocated to MGNREGA gives a strong signal to the labour plans and their implementation at the ground level,” he explained. “A slow budget translates to wage delays. This budget is not sensitive to the massive unemployment that persists. The idea that the budget would be raised with a rise in demand is not practical.”
“If you are at the grassroots, you will find that the rozgar sevak will make it known to people that they can work when a scheme opens up and funds are available. People do not come looking for MGNREGA jobs because they know there are none, until the rozgar sevak signals that there are, and this happens only when there’s an easing of fund flow,” Srivastava added.
The panchayat appoints these rozgar sevaks, and supervisors at worksites are called mates. These rozgar sevaks and mates are responsible for distributing job slips.
(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)