Faced with a shortage of farm work and no recourse to alternatives, labourers in Tamil Nadu are demanding that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) be extended to more than 100 days per year.

A. Lalitha, A. Rani and B. Papathi are landless labourers who live in Tirukanurpatti in Thanjavur. They work on a road formation project under the NREGS in the burning heat of the mid-day sun. Sheltering in the shade of a solitary tree in the vicinity, they explained why an extension of the policy is vital to sustaining their livelihoods.

The sudden shortfall in the monsoon has left us with very few options in farm work, Ms. Lalitha explained. I have been without work for one whole month until I joined this NREGS project four days ago, she said. Her husband and the husbands of Ms. Rani and Ms. Papathi are without work currently as they are looking for farm jobs that have all but vanished. When they do find work, it pays something like Rs.20-30 per day, Ms. Rani says, and this makes it difficult to make ends meet and feed the family. Their husbands also spend a large part of the household income on alcohol consumption, they admitted.

In this context of employment insecurity and monsoon-dependence in agriculture the NREGS is a lifeline for the landless poor. We would like to ask the government for at least Rs.100 as the daily wage, Ms. Lalitha said. As for the work, what we need is a minimum of 150 days per year. Even with such an increase we would be without work for some months. Ideally we would like to be offered 300 days of work per year if possible, she said.

In Vanarangudi village near Thanjavur, R. Malika and V. Sakuntala, both landless labourers, worked on a nearby NREGS site for 70-80 days last year. They are less confident about getting enough work on farms this year, given that the monsoon failure has hit farm employment hard: Were finding it difficult to get work on farms nearby and have to travel farther to find employment. Our situation would be better if we were paid Rs.100 per day and had more days of work on [NREGS] sites, Ms. Malika said.

At another roadwork project in Bodidasanpatti village in Theni district NREGS workers S. Vidiyammal and T. Veerama explained that last year they worked only 25 days on NREGS projects, far below the 100 days promised by the policy. Most years we only find about four months of work in agriculture, they said. Five days of work per week and a salary of Rs.100 per day would make a big difference to their livelihoods, according to Ms. Veerama.Guaranteed element

District authorities corroborate the significant positive benefits of the NREGS for rural labour. The right to employment is in effect being implemented via the NREGS, argued M.S. Shanmugham, District Collector, Thanjavur. The guaranteed element of the scheme has been understood well by the workers and they even complain directly to me sometimes when they have been provided fewer days of work than they have requested, Mr. Shanmugham said.

The administration in Tiruchi district reports a similar situation: A large number of labourers in the district are demanding more than 100 days of work. In most such cases the workers have already completed 100 days of work and desire further employment, says J. Dhanashekharan, Project Officer responsible for the NREGS in the District Rural Development Agency.