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National Seminar on MGNREGA and Gender Equity

                                                                                                                                 By- Ranvir Singh


Date: 17th-18th April, 2013

Place: Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi

The Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA) gave an opportunity to more than 40 participants from across the country to share their experience and concern over the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and Gender Equity. These experts - development practitioners, administrators, policy makers, social activists and people from academia - discussed gender issues in the MGNREGA scheme.

The MGNREGA is a unique employment opportunity for rural women who through it get a chance to earn their own income. It is important to note that because of this initiative women earn the same wages as men. It mobilizes women wage workers with gender parity of wages, better working conditions and exploitation-free work culture. Schedule II of the paragraph VII of the Act emphasises the word “priority”, which is itself evident of gender mainstreaming as the text denotes that priority should be given to women in the allocation of work in such a way that “at least one-third of the beneficiaries shall be women”.

NREGS has certainly provided mobility to women at village level, thus empowering them.

This whole process has certainly provided mobility to women at village level, which is one of the essential factors of empowerment. The provision of offering all work within five kilometres of residence is again a peculiarity of the legislation as women need not travel miles to earn their livelihood. It has been widely acknowledged that the serious problem remains at the implementation level across states, e.g. lack of crèches for mothers with young children and illegal presence of contractors, irregular wages, fake job cards, sarpanch centric activities, etc. But the critical positive impact which the Act made in women workers’ lives is through their enhanced economic independence and sense of equity.

But some tribal communities are still not benefiting from the scheme because of displacement by one or the other developmental initiatives of the State. By losing their land and livelihood, they are forced to migrate to neighbouring urban areas and seek specific attention if MGNREGA claims to be an inclusive developmental initiative.

One classical example of an initiative for gender equity and women empowerment was shared by a participant as the kudumbashree model, a community action plan which was launched by the Government of Kerala in 1998 to abolish poverty from the State. Currently, it is the largest women empowering project in the country with 37 lakh members and covering 50 per cent of households in Kerala. This model is based on three critical components – micro credit, entrepreneurship and empowerment. MGNREGA engages people mainly in natural resource management and tries to empower them by contributing to their household income. The larger concern of the participants and the issues raised by them can be addressed as special focus on work, corruption and patriarchy, facilities and governance.

Work: Sustainable approach to natural resource management (i.e. land development, rural connectivity, water conservation and water harvesting) is the key concern of the scheme. Land leveling, construction of wells, digging new ponds and canals, roads construction are major activities where this Act provides employment opportunities. Here it is important to note that, NREGS only offers manual labour which leads to questions whether this leaves some skills unutilized or even lead to deskilling; what is the effect on the local market and the local economy more generally; what are the conditions of work and how assured is the income; what is the interplay between paid work, unpaid work and care responsibilities in case of women workers.

Sustainable approach to natural resource management is the key concern of the NREGS.

Corruption and Patriarchy: It is anticipated that out of $9 billion annual expenditure for NREGS, upto $3.6 billion is lost to mid-level corruption, which means that the real beneficiary receive only 60 per cent of the promised income. Incorporation of electronic fund management system (EFMS) was meant to curb corruption and raise transparency in the scheme. But non-existence of post offices and banks in remote villages makes EFMS more challenging to women in those far flung regions. Even holding an account doesn’t ensure direct access to that income by women workers because of patriarchal societal challenges where their male counterparts handle bank accounts. The need of the hour is a monitoring system at various stages, which ensures transparency and safeguards beneficiaries.

Facilities: There have been occasional complaints of women being poorly paid and often denied the right to work due to unavailability of specific facilities for women workers at the worksite and existing socio-cultural barriers against women.  Women have to finish household chores before going to their work places and even during the lunch break they have to return to take care of their children and other family members. Despite such tough ascribed roles they come out of the houses and work outside but non-provisioning of some basic facilities like crèches and sanitary facilities on the worksites limit their work participation.

Governance: Executive agencies like Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Block Development Officers are said to be very poorly informed about various processes, e.g. registering households, forming vigilance committees, etc. They do not show much interest to any plea of existing heavy workload. In some tribal areas village councils and not PRIs are used as a system of local governance. Although, these councils are democratically structured but unlike PRIs they work in a manner that women’s representation is negligible. Therefore, the question of gender equity in the very nature of functioning of these local governing bodies arises and their role in the scheme itself is doubtful within the same dimension. This poor management at very end of the resource flow challenge gender mainstreaming in its very first step and leads to corruption where rural poor face denial of promised benefits.

Although there are various limitations on various fronts within the MGNREGA, it cannot be denied that it has helped in women empowerment, reduced gender wage gap, increased market wages, increased household income, improved child well-being, reduced hunger, controlled migration and created useful assets in Indian villages.


s200_ranvirRanvir Singh finished his PhD in Public Health from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has keen interest in spatial dimensions of the social aspects.  He has expertise in information management system for efficient modeling, monitoring and evidence-based planning.  His expertise on Geographical Information System (GIS) and its usage in various settings further enhances his research and programme implementation skills. He can be contacted at ranvir.jnu@gmail.com.