Women, particularly Dalits, in rural areas of Madurai district find the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) to be empowering and that it has made them financially independent.

A visit to some of the villages in Tirumangalam, T. Kallupatti, Sedapatti and Kalligudi blocks and data available with People's Action for Rural Development (PARD) Vaanoli, a community radio, provides an idea of how the scheme has brought about changes in the lives of rural people. Studies say that MNREGS is the largest employment guarantee scheme in the world, guaranteeing 100 days of paid work to a household. The scheme aims at enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas by providing unskilled manual work.

Workers at a site in Perumal Koil Oorani in T. Pudupatti, working under a project estimated at Rs. 8.45 lakh, shared their views. M.Gunasekaran, Makkal Nala Paniyalar, said that every week Rs.90 a day, based on their work, was given to the workers on Tuesdays.

The scheme's provisions such as priority for women in the ratio of one-third of total workforce, equal wages for men and women, and crèches for children of women workers had been very effective. Nageshwari (26), wife of Jayapandian, said that her husband was working in a hotel in Madurai for a daily wage of Rs. 200 and it was not enough for running the family. The MNREGS work had helped her to buy household items on her own without depending on the bread winner of the family. And women wokers were economically independent. She opined that it would be really helpful if the number of days and wages were increased.

The scheme also has the Income Effect, where an increase in the paid income of a woman worker, consequently increases her ability to choose her consumption. For example, N. Devi of Periya Theru in T.Pudupatti, a mother of three, says, “We normally never go out for work but MNREGS work has helped us save some money through self-help groups and I was able to buy a piece of gold after a long time without getting money from my husband.”

She further said that she was working for six days in a week and earned Rs.540. It took care of the ‘food problem' for at least a week or two and also provided her a choice on consumption.

P. Dhanalakshmi from Muniyandi Street in T.Pudupatti, wife of Paulpandi who works as a painter in Madurai, said that she was able to solve the domestic problems. She belongs to the Dalit community and shared her experience of work as cordial and there was no bias.

She feels that the women in her village are empowered because they do not have to depend on their husband's earnings for running the house. She says harassment at the hands of moneylenders has also reduced thanks to the scheme.

The MNREGS helps them to meet the everyday needs of household in the short run and their strategic needs in the long run. It has reduced the dependence for their basic needs on male family members and freed them from subordination and subjugation.

For old women

However, the most interesting aspect of the MNREGS work is that there were a few old women who were also working in the site. The younger members in the workforce were considerate towards them by offering them easy and less strenuous tasks.

Saraswathy, 65, of Periya Theru, when enquired why she had to work as she should be getting Old Age Pension, replied that she was getting the pension but it was not enough “and moreover I have to take care of myself because my children themselves are in a economically weak position. I do not want to be left alone and thanks to the scheme I am still economically productive and have a tangible contribution.”

Deepa and Devi of Pudupatti and M. Angaleeswari of A.Thottiapatti expressed that MNREGS work helped them come out of the clutches of agricultural bonded labour and wished that the work could be extended for 150 days.

Jothiammal of Arunachalapuram said that the charges that MNREGS work had affected agriculture could not be justified, “and even if it is true why cannot the land owners increase the wages for agricultural labourers. People have a choice of their own to choose their work and they go for work which offers them higher wages.”

A recent study says that women workers had a national average share of 40.65 per cent of total MNREGS person-days in 2006-07, 42.52 per cent in 2007-08, and 47.88 per cent in 2008-09, exceeding expectations and the stipulated 33 per cent share. Tamil Nadu has exceeded the national average of 47.88 per cent in 2006-09.

One of the underlying objectives of the MNREGS is to strengthen community development processes through grass-roots institutions and to make decision-making more inclusive and participatory. A positive development is the increased participation of women in gram sabha meetings.

Prominent social scientist Partha Chatterjee in a recent work has explained how government agencies distributing education, health services, food, roadways, water, electricity, agricultural technology, emergency relief and dozens of other welfare services have penetrated deep into the interior of everyday rural life and MNREGS stands testimony to this role of the State.

Social Activist Aruna Roy's observation that the scheme was an important support structure for the poorest and most marginalised rural communities holds true in these four blocks in Madurai.

More In: Madurai