Mahima Bewa, a 40-year-old widow with a family of five, was left with few options to survive. She has to look after her elder daughter with a child as her husband deserted her two years ago. She possesses a tiny tract of uncultivable land. She saw a glimmer of hope when she was offered 70 days of work to build a river bank under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Two hundred other women had participated in the programme. In these worksites, women account for 80 per cent of the workforce. What makes these work sites different from others under the MGNREGA is that the women choose their male co-workers. The project in Alaipur gram panchayat in Murshidabad has shown that the welfare scheme can break stereotypes.
Numerous stereotypes have been created around one of India’s most invisible communities — Muslim women. To get the women to work outside the ambit of the purdah system was a Herculean task. The authorities and the community were sceptical of women’s skills when it came to digging ponds or constructing river banks. Contrary to popular perception, Muslim women participated in the work to build the road by the Padma.
Most of their villages are located on the bank of the Padma, their economies crippled by erosion. Consequently, several families have been rendered landless and homeless. A vast track of cultivable land has been engulfed by the river, giving rise to a new char. Having failed to find employment on the fields, most young males — and even children — have been forced to migrate to cities to work as daily wage labourers. In spite of the economic problems, the villagers had not been provided with work under the MGNREGA till the middle of 2013.
A survey under the Poorest Area Civil Society support programme by the Nari-o-Sishu Kalyan Kendra reveals that even in 2011-12, over 50 per cent of the people in these areas were unaware about their constitutional right to get jobs. An overwhelming percentage of the people were ignorant about the fact that under the MGNREGA if they were to demand work, the panchayat is supposed to provide them with employment within 15 days. Awareness among the women was abysmally low.
The NSKK started mobilizing women through community meetings and campaigns to demand work. Having organized themselves, the women started demanding employment under the MGNREGA stipulations. Initially, the nirman sahayak, the official in charge of the MGNREGA at the panchayat level, was reluctant to arrange work on account of his apprehension that Muslim women would not work outside their homes. But now he is excited about the progress made by the MGNREGA, courtesy these women. The average working days under the MGNREGA has drastically increased because of the enhanced participation of women. While these women worked for at least 80 days till December 2013, the district average was 25 days.
Overcoming resistance within family, society and administration, the 100 days’ work programme has ensured the survival of women hailing from one of the most deprived sections of society. Widows, the aged and destitute women have found an opportunity to survive with the help of the job guarantee scheme. Many of them can now dream of educating their children.
A section of the population thinks that the MGNREGA is a colossal waste of public money. But the incident in Murshidabad has shown that the allegation is untrue. On the contrary, the involvement of Muslim women in creating community assets has ensured that one of the main objectives of the welfare programme has been met.