The were paid inequitable wages despite no measurement system to determine individual work done

“We are angry, and upset, and do not want these wages,” says Parmila, an illiterate widow from Chittoriya panchayat in Bihar's Katihar district.

Her pithy statement sums up the collective current of emotions running through the minds of the 60-odd women workers of Chittoriya, who were paid wages well below the minimum for a six-day work completed in January.

As many as 123 workers from Chittoriya, half of them women, were paid wages lower than the stipulated Rs. 104 a day under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA).

The authorities paid the men only Rs.68 a day, while the women were nonchalantly proffered an even measlier sum of Rs.42 for a total six days of work.

“We worked side by side with the men...why should we then settle for lower wages. We are ready to put in one more day of extra work if the government feels we have not worked hard enough,” the women collectively asserted — an assertion that is refreshingly un-plaintive.

That the authorities paid the women lower wages is a direct contravention of the Act's wage provisions which explicitly mention equal payment to both men and women workers, and compliance with the provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.

While the men too were not given their due, the women had to bear the additional gender and caste discrimination as most of them belonged to the Musahar and other backward sections.

When the issue was taken up by activists from the Jan Jagran Abhiyan (JJA), a people's group working in Katihar, the district authorities called the aberration a “tactless mistake.”

After much hue and cry, the District Development Commissioner (DDC) of Katihar said the matter would be investigated.

“What is worth noting here is that the authorities making the payments quite simply assumed that a woman must be paid less than the male. Given that there is no way of measuring individual work, it is indeed surprising that men were given higher wages in the same group,” said Kamayani Swami of the JJA. “This clearly shows a bias where women are believed to have done less work than the men.” The other noteworthy aspect here is that all 123 workers were made to work on a waterlogged patch of earth, which meant carrying wet and heavy cement-like earth, thus making the work doubly back-breaking.

To obtain the minimum wage of Rs.104 a day, the standard amount of earth work to be performed is 80 cubic ft. of mud for men and 68 cubic ft. for women. “The Schedule of Rates [SOR] offers no room for wage payment exceptions in tasks performed in soils other than soft mud. It does not say that in this case, instead of cutting the standard 80 cubic ft., 40 would have been sufficient to attain the minimum wage limit,” said Ms. Swami.

In Mohanpur Panchayat, around 35 workers were paid wages as low as Rs. 40 a day for nine working days.