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MORE BENEFIT THAN COST - For women, the NREGA would bring important social gains

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By Alaka M. Basu The author is professor, department of Development Sociology, Cornell University
  • Published 27.03.12

Not being an expert on the subject and too lazy to read all the fine print, I do not know the exact allocations under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act this year. But I gather the money has been cut down, largely because the sums allocated last year were not fully used by most states. Maybe there were other considerations too — like the complaints by rural landlords and other potential employers of a shortage of workers available to work at below minimum wages. And the poor, if not non-existent, infrastructure growth that MGNREGA can take credit for. And in purely money terms, Rs 40,000 crore is a lot of money to spend just to put more buying power (and therefore more demand for goods and therefore a faster growing economy) into the hands of poor people.

But there are so many more ways to count benefits than merely monetary gains. After all, we want financial gain for instrumental reasons, so that it translates into better social and cultural and physical outcomes. On these scores, perhaps the MGNREGA allocation is money well spent. And one way to make it even better spent may be to reserve it for women. This will bring into the workforce those women who were earlier averse to leaving or unable to leave home for work. Moreover, a hundred days of such exposure may be just what is needed to create an addiction to paid employment that allows us to translate our demographic window of opportunity (a disproportionately large working age population) into a demographic dividend (a disproportionately large working population).

All this was brought home to me on a recent visit to an MGNREGA site in Ajmer district in Rajasthan. Much more seemed to be happening here than I would have guessed if I had judged output merely by the current state of the pond (dry) built by NREGA employees last year or the state of the road (forever incomplete it seemed and probably destined eventually to be little more than a dirt track) supposedly being built by the women (and they were all women) employed by the scheme this year.

It is true that appearances can be especially deceptive in Rajasthan. It is not for nothing that it is our premier tourist attraction. The visual beauty — of the landscape and of the people — is dazzling. As we approached the site, I was momentarily blinded by the swirling reds and pinks of the large but tightly knit group of women who seemed to be digging earth and carrying it in what looked like the middle of a barren and stark piece of useless land. This was visual art at its finest and it was compounded on closer view by the stunning silver jewellery that the women all wore and the joy and ease with which they used our arrival to put down their shovels and their picks and get ready for a relaxed chat.

On closer view one saw the warts as well of course. The obvious poverty, the meagre packed lunches, the coating of dust on all the faces and hands. But, over a long conversation, one also discovered many more optimistic things , many signs that this programme has been good for women whether or not it has been good for the economy. True, the sample is not representative of anything larger, but it still provided pointers that are worth taking seriously. So here goes:

The act guarantees 100 days of employment per household. This sounds as if there is no limit on the number of household members who can claim employment, as long as the total number of man-days worked does not add up to more than a hundred. But from what one reads about the project as well as what I observed on the ground, there seems to be an implicit limit on the number of persons per household that can apply for a job card. When I asked the older women in this particular project why their daughters or daughters-in-law did not also work with them, I was told that their adult daughters (not that there were many unmarried daughters above the age of 18 in these homes — Rajasthan still has a very early age at marriage) could not get job cards. This is a pity, because in effect this programme, at least in this part of the country, is an employment generation scheme for women, which means that unmarried girls will be culturally more easily able to join it than in circumstances in which they are made to work alongside non-family males. It would certainly be good to get some more clarity on the act’s limit on the number of man-days versus the number of persons per household that can lay a claim to it.

As for the absence of young daughters-in-law, I am not sure that the absence of job cards reflected merely the absence of applications for job cards. Those women with married sons did not seem at all keen to have their sons’ wives ‘toil’ (if that is at all the word I want) alongside them and my distinct impression was that they felt that having these daughters-in-law around would spoil their fun.

For fun the whole thing certainly seemed to be, within very narrow limits of course. This particular group of women was raucous, flirtatious, disobedient of the authority of the male supervisor, and ready to burst into some very suggestive songs at the slightest encouragement. I did offer such encouragement, and they promptly settled down on the ground to belt out some rather shocking numbers. The oldest women were the loudest, while the youngest ones giggled more than they sang. The boldness did not stop there. When I asked who fed their husbands when they came away to work like this, I was greeted with noisy laughter. They thought I was cracking a good joke by suggesting that it was not enough that they got up early to cook their family’s meal before they left; I expected them to also be on hand to heat the food. And maybe I would next want them to actually put bite size morsels into their spouses’ mouths?

All this boldness and apparent independence looked very contingent. It was the power of numbers that uncovered it. Being part of a group, several studies show, gives individuals a sense of confidence and support that dealing by oneself with what life throws at you cannot match. At one level, there is, of course, a downside to this — the hooliganism (think of the stage grabbers after the recent inauguration of Akhilesh Yadav) and false bravado (teenagers drive much more rashly when they are with friends than when alone) that group membership facilitates in otherwise mild individuals. There is also the sense of exclusion suffered by those who do not belong to such a group.

But under the right circumstances, having the support and presence of and interactions with peers is good for one’s ability to challenge injustice (whether as domestic violence or on the shop floor) and a good stress buster when the stressors keep piling up — as they do in most lives of poverty. It is no wonder that several studies find a positive relationship between women’s employment and women’s health.

Group activity also increases one’s sources of information and one’s ability to process information. So I was not surprised that all the women in this particular project could correctly tell me the legal age at marriage for boys and for girls in India. They also knew about ORS to treat childhood diarrhoea and about non-permanent methods of birth control.

In India, many of these social advantages of group membership have come out in studies of women’s self help groups. Members of SHGs seem to be simply more confident and aware and outspoken than non-members (even though some of this may be a selection effect). However, if I had to choose, I would root for NREGA over the SHGs. The latter place too much of a burden on poor women. Most of us simply do not have the entrepreneurial skills to run even small businesses. And when these business ventures are supposed to make enough of a profit that loans can be repaid on time, it is one more form of pressure on individuals who have little enough control on their lives as it is — chickens get mysterious diseases, flowers and fruits rot if not stored well or sold immediately, the temptations to channel a part of the loan to repay earlier loans or to finance a wedding or to buy a television set are strong. How much more comforting and less stressful and more enjoyable it is to be post-paid for work done than pre-paid for work that might be impossible to do. No wonder all the women in my non-statistical sample all felt that they would much rather have jobs than micro-loans to start a business.

There seemed to be so many other non-monetary gains visible in this colourful spectacle. The group was, as they say in today’s language, multi-caste and multi-religious. And no one seemed to have a difficulty with that.

The women did have several problems and questions as well. Naturally. For example, not one of them has ever received the full daily wage of Rs.119; I am not sure how their output was calculated to decide that. They also complained about the early start of the working day. Instead of 8 am to 4 pm, could I use my supposed influence to make it 9 am to 5 pm, or, better still, 9 am to 4 pm? They also thought it unfair that they had to provide their own tools. Some of the concerns were more local, but just as important. These women got Thursdays off to catch up on their neglected household duties. But in this part of the state, women do not do any housework on Thursdays for some cultural reason that I did not quite get. So it would make much more sense for them to come to the NREGA site on Thursdays (work for pay in not prohibited on this day) and to take Wednesdays or Fridays off.

These are all easily remediable matters. What will require greater will and resources is a determination to continue the programme, to pressurize gram panchayats to push it more aggressively, and to reflect a little more on truly useful infrastructural and development projects so that the social benefits of the programme are enriched by economic gains as well. All this will be easier to do and even more effective if, instead of reducing the overall scope of MGNREGA, it is modified to now cover only the female part of the Indian population.