The scheme has altered exploitative feudal arrangements of village economy
Sixty-year old Kaliamma does not remember the last time a workspace treated her as an equal wage unit, until the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) came along.
For rural women like her, back-wrenching labour always came with gender-based pay difference. On the swampy paddy fields, women still get paid less than half the wages paid to male workforce. But, MGNREGS has altered the gendered nature of wages.
It has given them an entitlement to equal wages on par with men. This economic sustenance has altered, albeit in a limited way, exploitative feudal arrangements of a village economy. Until MGNREGS, spurious money lending and extractive labour was in vogue.
According to Birla Thangadurai, member, district committee for monitoring of bonded labour, women in dire need borrowed and worked under bonded conditions only towards interest payment. “Today, the weekly wages supported by SHGs lending have helped women’s household savings,” he says.
This holds true for Krishnaveni, a three-time member of Chettipulam Panchayat in Vedaranyam block. “Women save up their wages for their children, for their households. This has infused confidence in their midst.”
The rights-based framework of the scheme as compared to the patronising welfare-tone of erstwhile rural development programmes has given rural women a sense of participatory agency in community asset building.
“Earlier, we did not know the nature of schemes; if they were implemented by the State or the Centre; whether they were need-based. Today, we participate in the deliberations, demand and decide on the works to be taken up,” says Kalaichelvi, field worker under MGNREGS in Agarakadamanur Panchayat in Keezhvelur block.
In panchayats, desilting of ponds form a significant component of MGNREGS works. A dry, wasted water body affects womenfolk in a village milieu.
“Earlier, women walked half a mile to bathe, or fetch water. Today, a desilted pond supports water harvesting, and benefits us women,” says Krishnaveni. They do not lookup to MP’s or MLA’s funds for replenishing immediate community assets that have a direct bearing for women.
“A school is of no use if there is no access road. We demanded a road and laid one ourselves under MGNREGS,” says Amutha, also a ward member, at Chettipulam.
There is also a sense of stakeholdership while participating in the rehabilitation of community assets.
“We know what works can be done manually, without the use of machines. We know, engaging an earthmover to desilt a pond would mean siphoning away of excess sand that could, otherwise, be used for levelling of our kaccha roads,” says Amutha.
According to Vasanthi Ramamoorthy, president, Pudupalli-Vizhundhamaavadi Panchayat, the success of the scheme also hinged on the proactive participation of the panchayats. “Where panchayat presidents are innovative and engaged in a transparent manner, the scheme has spawned best results.”