Jorhat (Assam), Kannur (Kerala) and Bahraich (Uttar Pradesh): What does a job card under the national rural jobs programme, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), mean for someone?

For Janaki*, a sexagenarian working at an MGNREGS site in Kannur, Kerala, it means the ability to stay connected with her friends and contribute financially to her family, notwithstanding her age. "The MGNREGS worksite acts as a networking space for me and a platform to catch up with my friends. We talk, discuss and vent our personal problems as we work and I am able to contribute financially to my household," she told IndiaSpend, her face lighting up.

For Saroj Jaiswal, a 40-year-old single woman of Urra village of Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, the job card means the ability to negotiate for power and space with the gram panchayat officials. "It was in my fight for job cards, as a matter of right, for the women in my village that I was able to establish a working relationship with the panchayat president," Jaiswal told IndiaSpend. "Ham pradhan aur sachiv-ji se kaam nikalvaana seekh gaye hain. Aur voh job card ke madhyam se hua hai!" (We have learned how to get work done from our panchayat president and secretary, and it was thanks to our fight for our job cards.)

The common thread that runs through these two women's stories is their membership of self-help groups (SHGs, or women's collectives) in their areas. Over a period of time, several SHGs operating across the country since the 1990s have been brought into the fold of the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM)--a central government programme to boost rural incomes and alleviate poverty through women's collectives.

Millions of women like Janaki and Jaiswal have learned to use their SHGs to demand village community works, to negotiate for space and power with their gram panchayats, and to catch up with friends--or, to put it in the work context, to network.

This has in turn bolstered these collectives and enabled them to become more involved in rural development, we learned during our conversations with SHG members across Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Assam.

How NRLM and MGNREGS work in tandem

The NRLM set out in 2011 with an agenda to cover 70 million rural poor households across India's 600 districts, 6,000 blocks, 250,000 gram panchayats and 600,000 villages through self-managed SHGs and to provide them with livelihood opportunities.

In rural areas, women come together under SHGs to address their common problems, such as by engaging in weekly savings to create a corpus of funds--for activities known as 'thrift' and 'credit'--for use in personal emergencies or to tide over pressing needs. Their participatory planning process involves discussions and drawing up of demands for the development of their villages.

SHGs that engage in regular thrift and credit activities for six months and meet certain conditions come within the fold of the NRLM. This paves the way for them to access credit at lower interest rates, income generating opportunities, community funds, support structures, as well as information about and direct access to government-run poverty alleviation schemes.

MGNREGS as a key poverty alleviation scheme, and synergised with the SHG network, is a key component of NRLM. Both MGNREGS and NRLM are implemented by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) in partnership with state governments.

Yet, the Union budget for 2021-22 (Budget 2021), while increasing the allocation for NRLM by more than 48% compared to the revised estimate for 2020-21, reduced the allocation for MGNREGS by around 35%. Critics pointed out that MGNREGS had played a crucial role in alleviating distress during the pandemic and deserved better allocation, as IndiaSpend reported in September 2020.

MGNREGS has also helped increase the contribution of SHGs in rural development, and one of the SHGs' key demands is for more MGNREGS work--as our interactions in the field showed.

SHGs have regularly sought more MGNREGS work in their Village Poverty Reduction Plans (VPRP), which contain demands related to entitlement, livelihood, basic infrastructure and social development. The kind of work demanded in these plans ranges from the repair of pavements to desilting of ponds--rural work that can be undertaken within the purview of MGNREGS.

Consider, for example, the case of Dimoruguri Gram Panchayat in Tinsukia, Assam. Here, the SHG members demanded the construction of an irrigation drain for their village. This demand was taken to the MGNREGS' village-level functionaries, who approved it.

The same SHG women who had placed a demand for the drain found work under MGNREGS to construct it. This convergence between the SHG women and the panchayat enabled them to work together to better implement MGNREGS, strengthen the unity of their collective, and fulfil some of NRLM's objectives.

"In most cases, the women who undertake MGNREGS work are also a part of the NRLM network since both the programmes are aimed at [providing livelihood opportunities to] the poor households. The mobilisation process and rights education that happens in MGNREGS helps NRLM build strong federations of women conscious of their rights," said Manu Sankar S., programme manager with Kerala-based Kudumbashree National Resource Organisation, which brings together Panchayati Raj institutions and SHG networks across states.

The Kerala model

The origins of such convergence between the Panchayati Raj institutions and SHG networks can be traced back to Kerala, where the state's vast network of SHGs--called Kudumbashree--collaborated with its panchayats (local self governments). IndiaSpend has previously reported how Kudumbashree assumed a key role in implementing MGNREGS in the state.

The SHGs, known as neighbourhood groups in Kerala, played a pivotal role in generating awareness about MGNREGS, identifying work opportunities, mobilising groups for work, preparing estimates in consultation with the overseer or engineer, supervising work and providing amenities at the worksite, preparing and submitting muster rolls, and handling emergencies at work, as per a 2013 study by K.P. Kannan and N. Jagajeevan.

Later, the Kerala government formalised Kudumbashree's role in undertaking and handling MGNREGS work. All MGNREGS "mates" (work managers) would be appointed from among the Kudumbashree SHG network, it was decided, and they went on to play a major role in enhancing women's participation in Kerala, as data on the MGNREGS portal show.

The 10-year average of women's participation rate in MGNREGS from 2010-2020 for Kerala is 91% as opposed to the national average of 53%, the portal shows. Increased women's participation has also led to women accounting for 90% of the labour groups under MGNREGS in Kerala--the highest for any state in the country, indicated a 2015 report by Kudumbashree.

Giving Kudumbashree members a central role in MGNREGS implementation has increased their social visibility and self-confidence. It has strengthened the Kudumbashree network at all levels, which in turn has increased the access of poor women to community leadership, said Sarada Muraleedharan, additional chief secretary of the state's Local Self Government Department, in this 2013 report.

The struggle for a job card

However, making SHG women central to the implementation of the MGNREGS process also requires coordination and convergence between the SHG networks and the panchayats, which are the "principal authorities" for MGNREGS planning and implementation, according to this report by S.M. Vijayanand, a former chief secretary to the Government of Kerala.

While Kerala, owing to its experience with decentralised planning, empowered local self-governments and the Kudumbashree network of SHGs, could make Kudumbashree the MGNREGS implementation partner, other states' experiences are different.

Take the case of Urra village in UP's Bahraich district. Here the gram panchayat president is home-bound and it is her husband who takes all decisions on her behalf. Two years ago, when Saroj Jaiswal approached the husband of the actual president (known as the 'pradhan') to seek a job card under MGNREGS, he dismissed her, claiming that women are not fit to perform manual labour under the scheme.

Several women across SHGs in Urra had faced a similar dismissal. Many, including Jaiswal, did not even know that he was not the pradhan, only officiating in his wife's place.

Jaiswal mobilised the women to approach the pradhan's husband collectively, and demanded that he put down in writing his reservations about women doing manual work. "The pradhan didn't agree immediately. It was a pain-staking effort and we had to approach [the pradhan's husband] time and again. He even threatened some of us, which is why we went to him as a group," Jaiswal and her friends explained to IndiaSpend. After a lot of back and forth, he finally gave in. "That's when we realised the strength of our collective," Jaiswal said, adding, "Men can't stop us anymore, we are enough for each other."

In addition, these women have now used their Village Poverty Reduction Plan (VPRP) to place a demand for 938 job cards in 10 panchayats of Bahraich, field-level documents show. Some 120 women have already got the job cards. The VPRP has also placed a demand for MGNREGS community works in these villages--177 kinds of development works ranging from pond desilting to anganwadi centre repairs.

A local news clipping reporting on the distribution of job cards to women in Urra Village, Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh.
It was through collective action that women members of self-help groups were able to overcome opposition and get these jobs cards.

The Assam story

A similar story is unfolding in rural Assam. In 10 panchayats of Jorhat district alone, women's SHGs have raised 2,743 demands for job cards through their VPRP, as per field-level data. (Across states, the updating of these data is still a work in progress.) Across Assam, SHG networks in 90% of gram panchayats have drawn up village development plans.

Some of these demands have already been fulfilled. For instance, in Gram Panchayat Number 46 of Jorhat, 200 documents pertaining to a demand for 400 job cards are being processed, and 61 job cards have already been distributed.

"Two types of demands were presented: that a new job card be created for women who did not have one; and that names be added of women whose families had a job card but their names were not on the roster," said Bornali Bora, an internal mentor working for a convergence project in Jorhat.

A village planning chart. The extreme right column in the first row is the total number of job cards to emerge from the plan.

The SHG network and MGNREGS convergence was institutionalised through the Swa Nirbhar Nari-Atma Nirbhar Axom, created in October 2020. It aims to create more than 372,000 sustainable individual assets and 822 community assets under MGNREGS that will benefit 400,000 families in the first phase. This MGNREGS work will be undertaken by SHG members.

"MGNREGS provides us with work within the village, which is helpful because there are fewer opportunities for private work here within the village. It is indispensable for our livelihoods," said Rekha Saikia, convenor of a panchayat-level federation of SHG women in Borholla gram panchayat in Jorhat, who became an MGNREGS mate 10 years ago. "Being a mate has made me realise how significant the scheme is for me and my sisters in the SHG."

*Name changed to protect identity

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