The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is one of the most closely watched social initiatives of India's current union government. What this "promise of work" scheme does is promise one hundred days of employment for every rural household and the creation of durable assets and livelihood resources for the poor through the work undertaken through the program. Launched in February 2006, for the financial year 2006-07, it was launched in 200 of the poorest districts across 27 states of the country to alleviate distress in rural India to be subsequently extended to the rest of the country from April, the same year.
But the significance of the scheme also lies in what it means for the women of rural India. According to the provisions of the Act, a third of the work has to go to women. A review of the first year (2006-2007) shows that currently women have a forty percent share in the NREGA on a national average – not far from the half way mark at the all-India level. Those statistics would be enough to hazard a smile given the dismal state of affairs when it comes to employment and wages for the underprivileged in the country, particularly women. But an average is just that. It does nothing to highlight the poor showing of many states in the country where all kinds of methods, ranging from persuasion to coercion, have been employed to keep the marginalized sections of society right where they are – marginalized. While women appear to have a disproportionately higher share of employment options in the southern and western states of Tamil Nadu at 81% and Rajasthan at 67% the worst offenders, with a pathetically low average, are the northern and eastern states of Jammu and Kashmir at 4%, Bihar at 17% and Himachal Pradesh at 12%.
A review of the Act in the various districts has exposed many glitches in the implementation that need to be removed if the Act is to reach the intended sections of the target groups. One of the weakest links of the program appears to be the inherent exclusion of women from this equal opportunity for employment because of the provision of gainful work for only one member of the household. That means that women cannot hope to be the first choice and can fill only a space left vacant by the head of the family or any other male member of the family.
Even if there are women-headed households, they are at a distinct disadvantage in accessing the benefits of the scheme because the provision of work to one person of the household has been very often interpreted as applicable only to the male head of the household. As a result, widows who already face tremendous social ostracism in rural India are ironically the ones least likely to benefit from the Act. And this is a trend evident even in districts where the program itself has benefited innumerable families. With many being told that to benefit from the scheme there must be at least a pair of workers, single women evidently have no place in the NREGA. In other places they have been coerced in to not even registering themselves under the Act. And when this is read in tandem with the reports of exclusion from almost every section of the marginalized across states it really compounds the situation calling for an urgent need for concerted action from crucial stakeholders; between government agencies and civil society organizations and at the grassroots level to ensure that the program reaches those who need it the most – the poorest of the poor.
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Moreover, almost everywhere the mandatory provision of crèche facilities at NREGA worksites has been brazenly ignored. Better arrangements for child-care are urgently required to facilitate the participation of women. Often women, in the absence of child-care facilities, have to leave their children to play outside dangerously close to the worksite and hence very often feel discouraged to come to the worksite at all. Not only would child-care facilities help in the continued employment of women, they would also open doors to creating wider social acceptance of child-care arrangements as a basic right of working women.
While the scheme has the potential to be one of the more sustainable actions in the alleviation of unemployment and poverty, it is imperative is to study women's participation in the social auditing of the NREGA. After all, an important component of the Act is the emphasis on the participation of women.
In a country where poverty remains at the heart of most problems, the economic dependence of women on men in rural India plays a major role in their subjugation. It is this aspect that the NREGA could effectively address as an important tool of social change. Participation of women bodes well for the country too. Apart from the economic independence it brings to the woman and better agricultural wages, it ensures that families do not have to migrate simply because the breadwinner relocates – which in turn would also act as a check on the school drop out rate and ensure access to facilities which otherwise continuous migration inadvertently denies many groups.
The kind of impact the model stands to have in rural society has even been recognized by the South African government, which hopes to replicate the model to consolidate the country's Extended Public Works Programme to "scale up and reach more unemployed."
While the NREGA carries a powerful message, it suffers at the ground level from the culture of impunity and lack of commitment impeded further by inherent attitudes of social exclusion – the belief that even government schemes for the distressed are meant to reach only certain groups at the cost of others. While some of the pioneer districts have actually witnessed greater economic security, agricultural wages are rising, migration is slowing down, productive assets are being created, women have more economic independence leading to a change in power equations, the need of the hour is to extend these positive experiences to other districts. And that is no easy task in a country with all its inherent conflicting groups and interests, of castes and sub-castes, cultures and sub-cultures each with its own set of parochial patriarchal systems. Yet if NREGA delivers its promise the economic independence it will bring is bound to impact lives of women across the states of India.