Bhagalpur and Vaishali, Bihar: In December 2023, almost 800 people--of whom 700 were women--participated in a strike of workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in the Patepur block of Bihar’s Vaishali district.

The Narega Sangarsh Morcha, a nationwide forum for workers, listed the issues in a social media post, with the major issue being the alleged fraud within the MGNREGS scheme in Bihar. The scam involves adding labourers' names to the muster rolls without their knowledge and falsely marking their attendance on the National Mobile Monitoring System (NMMS) app, which records the daily attendance of workers on the site. Payments meant for these labourers were redirected to corrupt officials, including those at various levels of government from blocks to districts, the Jan Vikas Shakti Sangathan (JVSS) alleged. JVSS is an organisation for labourer-farmers, and for the exploited and deprived, and it fights for them primarily by creating awareness of their rights including rations, pensions, education, land issues, health, etc.

The Patepur strikers demanded action against corrupt officials, an investigation into and cessation of these scams. Further, they demanded an investigation into corruption in the MGNREGS, resolution of delayed wage payment, redressal of unavailability of work, and the resolving of issues concerning job cards, bureaucratic hurdles by block officers etc. The protests lasted five days and ended on December 8, when they were assured that the demands would be looked into, JVSS activist Ranjan Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Earlier in November 2023, representatives from 18 states including Bihar and more than 40 labour unions/organisations and activists working for improved MGNREGS implementation took part in the National Convention of Nrega Sangharsh Morcha. They voiced their concerns about delayed payments; over the fact that MGNREGS earnings were less than the minimum wages set by the state; budget cuts; deletion of job cards and the weaponisation of technology interventions to deter workers.

Since the 1980s, the Indian government has introduced various public works-based employment programmes to address the challenges faced by the rural poor, mostly agricultural labourers who rely on daily labour wages. However, the programmes did not adequately meet the demands of rural employment. To tackle this issue, the United Progressive Alliance government introduced the MGNREGS in 2006. The programme is variously referred to as MGNREGA (the ‘A’ standing for the Act passed to codify the programme), MNREGA and NREGA.

The initiative aimed to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed-wage employment to every rural household willing to engage in unskilled manual work during each financial year. The MGNREGS differs from earlier wage employment programmes as it involves a rights-based approach, where the government is obligated to provide work within 15 days of the request. Failure to do so entitles workers to unemployment allowance.

Further, employment opportunities should ideally be available within a distance of 5 km from the job-seeker’s village. If work is offered beyond this limit, an additional payment of 10% is required to cover the cost of transportation and accommodation. Availability of shade, adequate drinking water, and first aid are musts at every work site.

This law is especially significant for female workers because it reserves a minimum of one-third of the total workdays for them; it provides opportunities for unskilled manual labour; it requires that work be done locally; and it stipulates that in the event there are more than five children under the age of six at a given worksite, on-site child care must be provided.

The programme officer must be notified by the gram panchayat prior to beginning any work under the MGNREGA system. The officer then issues the necessary muster rolls; each roll requires a unique identity number and must be certified to all executing agencies, gram panchayats, and the programme officer.

The job card number, name, and number of days worked are listed on the muster roll. Together with each worker's signature or thumb impression, the attendance of the workers and the pay received will be displayed against their names. If a worker’s name appears in the muster roll, he or she should be able to access that information in order to know the worksite details, nature of work, and number of allotted days.

Too many people, too little work

Thirty-nine-year-old Shiv Kumari, a member of the Manjhi community, is a resident of Nilo Rukunpur panchayat in Vaishali district and was an active participant in the Patepur strike. The Manjhi community were traditionally engaged in boating and fishing. Very few Manjhi own their own land; thus, most of them work as labourers on others' property. In 2023, Kumari got a total of 15 days of work, and she is yet to receive pay for 10 days. Her husband is a migrant worker living in Kolkata. “The 10 days of work that I got is economically valuable to us,” Kumari said. “We have six kathas (one acre equals 32 kathas) of land, and I have two children aged 15 and 18. The land is too little to provide for our needs. There is no other work except MNREGA work that is available to me.” If she would have secured the promised 100 days’ work, her household situation would have been better.

Pramila Devi, aged 43, was also among those who protested at Patepur. She complained of getting only 20 days of work. “I have received payment for only 11 days of work,” she said. “Once, my name was there in the issued muster roll but I was informed about work only four days later.” Pramila Devi too belongs to the Manjhi community, and her family owns no land. Due to lack of money, her children could not continue their education. Her sons, aged 17 and 21, work as migrant labourers in the brick kilns of Gujarat, and her husband is an intra-state migrant working as a labourer at construction sites. Both women said they became aware of their rights under MGNREGA only after joining the JVSS.

The need for such an organisation becomes apparent since many women MGNREGA workers are unaware of their rights, as neither the village mukhiya nor block officers deliver the essential information. The status of the wage seekers as the primary stakeholders of the Act and the rights of the wage seeker like provision of crèche, drinking water, first aid facilities on worksites are facilities unknown to them. Ranjan Kumar of JVSS says, “We work with the women and educate them about the scheme.”

In 2023-24, 517 families from Vaishali district completed 100 days of work. This is about 0.3% of over 176,000 families that demanded work. Across Bihar, this number was 23,074 families or 0.4% of the 5.35 million households which demanded work, and 0.5% of the 4.6 million households that availed work.

The approved labour budget for the scheme in Bihar for the financial year was 225 million person-days, which is 25 million less than the previous year. Of this, by March 13, only 89.6% or 201.5 million person-days of work were completed. The average days of employment provided per household fell from 47.16 to 43.85. Women accounted for 54.29% of person days in 2023-24, down from 56.39% the previous year.

Sinki Devi and her two sisters-in-law, who belong to the Koeri community, residing in Chhoti Dhankar village of Sabour block in Bhagalpur district, possess labour cards. They do not own any land, leaving them to rely on their husbands' earnings. "Our husbands work as masons,” Devi said. “We wish to work and contribute to the family, but nobody has ever offered us any work through MGNREGA, and we lack knowledge about it." Though they are job card holders, they are unaware of the procedures regarding its use.

Sinki Devi (bottom right), with her sisters-in-law and their children. All three women have MGNREGS job cards, but say they are not aware how to avail work under the programme.

Men migrate in search of work, leaving their wives behind

The 2023 Multidimensional Poverty Index released by Niti Aayog ranks Bihar at the top in the list of states suffering from multidimensional poverty. The men in the state migrate for work; studies suggest that 85% of migrants from Bihar are men. The women they leave behind express strong interest in MGNREGS work, which helps them earn a little extra while still leaving them some time to manage household tasks.

Women see MGNREGS work as a gateway into the wage market. It grants them greater control within their families. The surplus money earned is primarily invested in necessities such as children's education and healthcare. In its absence, children tend to discontinue education and engage in migrant work.

Anuradha Talvar, a veteran trade union activist, points out that women utilise the money they earn prudently, and do not indulge in activities such as alcohol and gambling. Ranjan Kumar agrees. “The women who we work with in blocks of Vaishali district mostly tend to use the MGNREGA money that they get on their children and their own needs, like health,” he says.

If poor, rural women can control their access to MGNREGS wages through bank accounts and receive adequate training for handling it, they are more likely to join or continue in the labour workforce in India, IndiaSpend reported in January 2020.

Unfavourable working conditions

Pramila Devi, who secured only a few days of work this year, highlighted the challenge of spending nearly 40 minutes walking to reach the worksite. When she was working at a site, she had a leg injury. There was no first aid kid on site.

In another instance, she remembers that the labour group had to use a hand pump installed in a nearby villager's house because there was no plan in place by the authorities to provide drinking water. The villager was uncomfortable with the workers using the hand pump for prolonged and repeated periods, and this caused friction. “We carry our own water bottles from home,” Pramila Devi says.

Sanju Devi is a Mate who hails from Muzaffarpur district's Dumri village of Mushahari block. She is associated with the Gramin Vikas Manch, a local workers’ organisation. Based on her experience, she stresses the need to have temporary restrooms at the worksite and points out that in their absence, women workers are forced to make use of bushes or trees as cover while they relieve themselves. The situation becomes even more complicated when a woman worker is menstruating, Sanju Devi points out.

There was no crèche available at the worksite as mandated by the rules. The immediate elder children accompany their mothers to work in order to help take care of the younger ones.

Ranjan Kumar from JVSS works in seven to eight blocks of a total 16 blocks of Vaishali district. He identifies Patepur, Mahua, Jandaha, Chehrakala, Garaul, Bhagwanpur, and Patedi Belsar as the blocks where no crèche facility is available, despite the organisation putting pressure on the government. In Muzaffarpur district, the organisation is active in all 16 blocks. “We have visited two to three panchayats of every block where the organisation is active, and no childcare provision at the worksite was to be found.”

Santosh Kumar, a local activist associated with the Gramin Vikas Manch (GVM), highlighted the absence of crèche facilities in the four blocks--Mushahari, Gaighat, Kurhani and Muraul--in Muzaffarpur district.

The Ministry of Women & Child Development is expanding childcare services via anganwadi cum Crèche (AWCC) as part of Mission Shakti's Palna sub-component. The aim is to offer a high-quality crèche facility, ensuring a safe environment for children aged six months to six years. “In order to facilitate their (women’s) entry into the workforce, there is a need for quality child care services," reads the announcement.

“The announcement shows the government's awareness of childcare facilities,” Talvar says. “However, when a scheme like MGNREGA already has an approved provision, it should be implemented." She points out that women workers often talk of the absence of even basic toilet facilities at the worksite.

Renu Devi, a 28-year-old resident of the Patepur block of Nirpur Panchayat, received 12 days of work in the year 2023--first for five days, and then for a week. On her worksite, every employee was a woman. She has a three-year-old kid and her two other companions were also mothers of small children. "We are not asked if we have children that we may be bringing to the worksite," she told IndiaSpend. Her three children are three, five and eight years old, and they often go to work with her.

Even though the allotted task was completed over two months ago, she has still not gotten her wages for a week's work. The Gramin Rozgar Sevak avoids answering her questions and dodges by saying, "Aaega aaega paisa…." whenever she inquires about employment or the payment of wages for work previously completed.

Renu Devi says, “34 people applied for a labour card from our village and only 12-14 of them received the cards. Others’ request was declined on the grounds of lack of appropriate paperwork but no one advised them about the process.”

“Women are being neglected due to bureaucracy and the dominance of males. The MNREGA came with the promise of not just providing work but work on equal footing of men and women. However, while there are complaints about gender disparity in payment at several places, the bigger problem is the failure to stress on women-friendly work and delay in clearing wages.”, says a study published in the International Journal of Advanced Research in Commerce, Management & Social Science (IJARCMSS).

Another common complaint is that job cards of workers are often deleted without prior intimation. The Minister of State in the Ministry of Rural Development told parliament that job cards are deleted to weed out fake/incorrect cards, duplicate cards, or when the family is not willing to work, has permanently shifted from the gram panchayat or if the job card has a single person, who has since died. Activists however point out that willing workers have had legitimate job cards deleted, and further that it does not answer the question about lack of prior intimation.

When asked if MGNREGS’s issues would be a factor influencing the women’s vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha election, Sinki Devi doesn't offer a definitive answer. “The politicians who come seeking votes in the village hardly do anything for us,” she says.

While questioning the political will of the Union government to successfully implement MGNREGS, Talvar also sees it as a partial failure of labourers' organisations that the mismanagement of the scheme would not significantly influence women's voting decisions in the Lok Sabha elections. Vaishali falls under Ujiarpur Lok Sabha constituency. Since 2014, Ujiarpur has had an MP from the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Schemes like MGNREGS lack immediate visibility in the lives of many women due to the already low number of workdays and delayed payment in numerous states, she points out. Consequently, the rights-based framework that this scheme has is not perceived as a fundamental entitlement by women holding labour cards.

Few women in supervisory roles

To improve women’s participation in supervisory roles under MGNREGS, the Bihar government issued a policy to encourage ‘Mahila mates’. A mate's responsibilities include organising groups of workers, outlining the tasks that are needed to be completed in order to receive the minimum wage (as specified in the ‘Schedule of Rates’), and keeping track of workers' names and attendance on a daily basis on muster rolls kept at the workplace. The policy leverages the self-help groups to improve women’s participation.

The mates are instructed in how to use the NMMS app to mark workers' attendance. Any day missed results in loss of wages for that day. The primary responsibility of the GRS, which is an appointed post, is to support technical personnel in strengthening MGNREGA-related work.

Pankaj Prasun is a Gram Rozgaar Sevak (GRS), an appointed post to support the panchayat in MGNREGS-related work. A mate that Prasun knows used to borrow a phone from her neighbour for work purposes. Block officers helped her purchase a phone after her neighbours stopped helping. “I have forwarded this concern to the higher authority, but maybe the state government is first trying to check the success of the mate programme,” he said.

The lack of mobile network and problems in registering attendance is affecting timely wage payments for workers, IndiaSpend reported in May 2023.

In the block to which Prasun has been appointed, most women are not aware of the role of a mate. “In the past year, we have had one training session, but it was insufficient to provide them with all the knowledge. Currently, all we have to do is assign a group of MGNREGA workers to a mate, which goes against the principle of how this system ought to function.”

The mate bears direct responsibility for verifying the legitimacy of the information contained in the muster records and the calibre of labour performed. They are responsible for ensuring that the following amenities are provided at the workplace: a place to live, a medicine kit, and workers who are assigned to provide water and child care. The mate is also tasked with responding to crises, such as workplace mishaps.

Many of the women who applied to be a mate had no idea what the obligations of a mate were. “They were told to fill out the form and submit it to the Jeevika office, and that is what they did. It will take some time for the mates to completely understand and act upon the purpose of their appointment,” the area's GRS said.

Ranjan Kumar has also raised concerns regarding block officers assigning their acquaintances the task of marking attendance on the NMMS app. "At times, the mate's husband comes to the worksite,” he says. “They are not sincere in marking attendance. This affects the workers, because without attendance recorded on the app, payment for the day's labour won't be processed even if the person has worked."

As a result, women workers have been demanding that one among them be appointed the mate. “The training that the mates have received is not qualitative,” Ranjan Kumar says. “We train our workers in the union; therefore, we demand their appointment. The government should be more efficient with the training of mates.”

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