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Employment Guarantee and Child Rights

The social audit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme conducted in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan brought out the administrative preparedness for the scheme and the benefits for women workers. Some problems remain, most importantly the lack of childcare facilities.

Employment Guaranteeand Child Rights

The social audit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme conducted in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan brought out the administrative preparedness for the scheme and the benefits for women workers. Some problems remain, most importantly the lack of childcare facilities.

KIRAN BHATTY

T
wo months into the launch of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), a padyatra through Dungarpur district, Rajasthan, gave an illuminating view of how the act works – or at least can work – on the ground. The padyatra, which lasted for nine days from April 17, also served as a mass “social audit” of NREGA. It was the combined effort of a number of local organisations (such as the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Wagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan and Astha), which came together for this purpose under the banner of ‘Rozgar evum Soochna ka Adhikar Abhiyan’.

“Social audit” is a process whereby government programmes are monitored directly by the people concerned. In the context of the NREGA, it means watching any possible violations of the act or guidelines (fudging of muster rolls, delayed wage payments, under-payment of wages, inadequate worksite facilities, and so on) through participatory methods. For instance, at each worksite the muster rolls were read and verified in public. Aside from facilitating this process of social audit, the padyatra was also an opportunity to spread awareness of the provisions and entitlements of the act among the people.

For this purpose, more than 600 padyatris (belonging to 165 organisations spread over 14 states) were trained to conduct “social audits” of NREGA works, and to use creative methods to bring the message of employment guarantee to the people – songs, slogans, puppetry and street theatre. These 600 padyatris were then divided into 31 teams that fanned out into the district to cover every panchayat and visit as many work sites as possible. The teams sent daily reports from the villages, which were conveyed to the district administration along with suggestions for improvements, and also to the media. The usefulness of the padyatra and social audit process came home to the yatris in different ways. For instance, as Hemlata, from a NREGA district in Andhra Pradesh, said; “Even though I do not speak Hindi, just seeing the work sites, observing the conditions under which people live and work has been an eye-opener for me. I would like to go back to my district and help organise a similar exercise there.” Babu Singh from Rajsamand, Rajasthan (not an NREGA district) said: “This is a learning experience for us to help us prepare for the NREGA when it is launched in our area.”

Armed with photocopies of the muster rolls, a dholak, a puppet (appropriately named Muh Phat), leaflets, social audit checklists, research questionnaires, banners, flags and a donation box, the 31 teams set off in different directions to cover every panchayat in Dungarpur, visiting EGA work sites, checking procedures, talking and sensitising people. As we moved from village to village, waving our banners, beating drums and singing songs, it was Muh Phat, the puppet who stole the show. It never failed to draw a crowd and hold people’s attention. Faces of women and children would light up with delight as Muh Phat put forth the need for people’s participation in monitoring programmes in simple and effective language.

NREGA in Desolate Dungarpur

Dungarpur is among Rajasthan’s poorest districts. It is situated in the southern part of the state, bordering Gujarat, and inhabited largely by adivasi communities. Parts of this dry, tree-less landscape is so devoid of signs of life that it is hard to imagine how people live and survive there. In the areas that I visited as a yatri, villages are spread over vast stretches of land with solitary homes scattered over dry stony hillocks (‘dungars’). Not a blade of grass or twig is in sight for miles on end.

Agricultural productivity in Dungarpur is very low and other sources of livelihood are few and far between. Large-scale migration and sporadic relief works appear to be the main avenues for employment. In Asela panchayat, marble mining is the

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006 only other source of work, but as Lata, from Manpur village, who quit her job at the mine to enrol in NREGA said: “We are not even provided with water when we work on the mines. Working on NREGA worksites is much better.”

In such circumstances the work provided under NREGA has come as a real boon to the people. Registration, and the issuing of job cards, has taken place on a massive scale. Almost every family in rural Dungarpur has a job card, and at the time of the padyatra, every other household had a member employed on NREGA. However, what remains to be seen is the effectiveness of the procedures for demanding work, monitoring its quality, ensuring timely payment of wages and other aspects of implementation.

What has consistently emerged from reports sent by the yatris is that there is a remarkable degree of admistrative preparedness for NREGA in Dungarpur district. Job cards have been issued and works have started on time, muster rolls are generally available at the worksite, information about the works is publicly available and NREGA has become a high priority for the local administration. Further, extensive verification of muster rolls and other NREGA-related records by the padyatris showed that these records were by and large accurate. However, people’s awareness of their entitlements under the act is still quite low. For instance, many people do not understand that a job card entitles them to a 100 days of employment as a matter of right, or that employment is demand-driven. For most part people are treating NREGA as yet another top-down scheme.

Women and Work

A striking feature of the programme, often glossed over, is the large-scale involvement of women and the corresponding impact on children. As we walked over the arid landscape, work sites would suddenly stand out as riots of colour as women in brightly coloured attire dominate the scene. In fact work sites could be spotted from a distance from the contrast in colours – the reds and pinks against the brown surroundings. In site after site, we found that more than 80 per cent of the workers were women. According to the collector of Dungarpur, Manju Rajpal, about 90 per cent of the NREGA workers are women. In some instances, such as the Shiv Sagar Talab work site in Biladi panchayat, there is not a single male employed. The reason for the greater participation of women is that the men have migrated out, either to Gujarat or to neighbouring towns. Thus, with the launching of NREGA work, it is the women who have responded and come out in large numbers to avail of the opportunity.

These women walk roughly fourfive kms every day to get to work at 6 am, and stay on the site till 2 pm when work stops for the day. Most of the works involve breaking stones, or digging, or lifting and depositing earth some distance away (‘lift and lead’). It is hard manual labour that these women do for eight hours a day in the hot relentless sun with no shade in sight. While water is available, there are no other facilities available on site. All the women I spoke to complained of severe

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

body and headaches. Ganga bai at a Mathugumda check dam site said, “our body aches from lifting the heavy instruments for digging and breaking stones all day and the hot sun gives us a constant headache”. The latter in particular, she said, “just don’t go away”. The women at the work site claimed that they are forced to take medicine every day to get some relief. Manju from Khera village complained that she had returned to work soon after her delivery and felt very weak.

Home Alone

Another disturbing aspect of this situation relates to the condition of children, who are grossly neglected. Since the men have migrated and women are now at the work sites, where there are no childcare facilities, children of all ages are simply left at home alone. In case after case we were told of five-six-year old siblings looking after infant children all by themselves while their parents are away at work. Even breast-fed children are left at home in the care of young sibling. Their mothers feed them before leaving and then after they return. When asked what happens to them in the interim, the only answer they had was: “Ooparwale ke bharose chhod kar aate hain, kya karen?” (We leave them at god’s mercy, what else can we do?)

We encountered this heart-rending situation as we went around villages looking for people to talk to and found only children. The only adults, if any, were old people who seemed in need of care themselves. Unfortunately we were unable to talk to the children, but one can only imagine how they fend for themselves and deal with untoward incidents that must occur with regularity. One of the mothers at the site said: “We are all the time worried about the safety of our children left at home. We have no idea how are they managing, but we have no choice.”

In instances where there are no “older” siblings, babies are brought to the work sites and left lying on the bare ground with no shade or covering, while the mother digs earth or breaks stones in the near vicinity. It is a pitiable sight to see an infant lying unprotected in such harsh conditions.

The NREGA clearly states that a woman should be deputed to look after young children at the work site whenever five children under the age of six are present. The NREGA guidelines also call for the provision of crèche facilities at work sites and direct the state governments to ensure that the required resources are built into cost estimates. However, despite the dire need for crèche facilities, this aspect of the act appears to be completely neglected.

The problem of childcare at work sites is actually more complex than it appears. The conditions at work are so harsh that bringing children there seems to be pointless. Permanent structures at the work site also do not seem to be an option, and makeshift arrangements may well be worse than leaving children at home. Thus, creative thinking will be required if a solution to this problem is to be found. Some valuable suggestions have already been made and need to be explored further. One such is the possibility of employing a person under NREGA to look after a group of children, especially infants, at one of the homes rather than at the work site. The children will have a caregiver and there will be no need to create an appropriate structure at the work site. Another suggestion is to set up mobile structures, such as tents, at the work sites that can be packed up at the end of the day and kept in a safe place till the next day. The latter has the advantage of providing a place for mothers to breast feed during the day when they are working. It will also probably give them greater peace of mind to have their children closer at hand.

The Dungarpur experience shows beyond doubt that NREGA can provide a much-needed source of livelihood in rural areas, particularly for women. As one of the participants put it at an evaluation meeting on April 26: “The Dungarpur padyatra shows that effective and transparent implementation of the Employment Guarantee Act is possible, when political commitment and public vigilance reinforce each other.” However, the impact on children calls for immediate attention. Here as in many other contexts, issues pertaining to children (especially those below the age of six) have been treated with indifference if not callousness. Special attention to this voiceless section of society is urgently required. At the very least, effective childcare facilities should be arranged so that women are free to take up employment under NREGA without making their own children suffer. A recognition of the problem, and some creative thinking about how to deal with it, would go a long way in extending the benefits of the act to a larger section of society. It is also an essential step towards using the Employment Guarantee Act as an opportunity to empower rural women.

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Email: kiran@pobox.com

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

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