For four years, Pista Sargara (55), a long-standing job card holder under the MGNREGA, approached her panchayat office in Bhilwara Lok Sabha constituency desperate for any work under the scheme. She was turned away each time. The turnaround came in January 2019 when she finally got some digging work, along with 50-odd women from nearby villages, for a ground-water conservation project taken up by the Shivpur panchayat.
At Rs 199 a day, the Central government-notified MGNREGA wage rate for Rajasthan is Rs 26 less than the state’s minimum wage. On the ground, the pay is half this amount and it comes with a month-long delay. Yet, for Pista and many such as her, any bit of paid work counts. In the season of political grandstanding, Pista knows what she would vote on. Pointing to the ditch she has dug for conserving whatever little rainwater the region receives, she says in Mewari, “Mandir ne khade me nako, mane toh raasan ka gehu do (Temple can go to that pit. I am more concerned about geting my ration).”
Women account for a high 65 percent of the MGNREGA workforce in Rajasthan, and like Pista, many are vocal about benefiting from the recent revival the scheme has seen. In a state where despite losing the Assembly elections, the BJP is far ahead in the race for most Lok Sabha seats, these MGNREGA workers have a reason to root for the Congress.
At every MGNREGA work-site The Indian Express visited, women spoke of why of all government policies, MNREGA mattered the most to them.
In mid-December 2018, when the Congress government took over in Rajasthan, the total number of labourers engaged in MGNREGA work per day was about 10 lakh. As on today, the daily numbers have trebled to 30 lakh as per data from the Employment Guarantee Scheme Commissioner’s office in Jaipur. At the moment, Rajasthan holds the record for employing the largest numbers under MGNREGA for any state in the country; Tamil Nadu at second spot is far behind with 13 lakh labourers.
The massive spike has been recorded since the Ashok Gehlot government launched the ‘Kaam Maango Abhiyan (Ask for Work Drive)’ on January 5. In addition to the number of labourers, the total person days of work generated (3 crore in 2018-19), as well as the number of households that have been provided full 100 days of work (5 lakh) are the highest ever in over a decade that the scheme has been implemented in the state. Between December 2018 and March 2019, the cumulative person days of work generated has gone up by 100 per cent, compared to a 50 per cent jump in the corresponding period last year.
Officials state that despite MGNREGA being a demand-driven scheme, the lack of administrative push led to officials on the ground, starting with the gram sevaks, not officially registering the demand for work. Mahavir Prasad Panchal, who runs a tea stall and organises the informal labourers that come seeking work at a labour chowki in Jaipur, says the last three months have seen a dip in intra-state labour migration, especially among women, as many now find MGNREGA work back in their villages itself.
A board along a concrete pathway winding through the hills in the reserved Scheduled Tribe (ST) constituency of Banswara announces that the road has been built under the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana. The road however comes to an abrupt end where the Forest Department land begins. At some distance from there, an all-women team of 50 odd is levelling a narrow strip of a rocky hill with nothing but spades. Laali Bhil, 65, has been at it for 17 days, working from 6 am to 2 pm in the 40 plus degree summer, for Rs 80 a day.
Laali, a Wagdi speaker, says the low wages explain the absence of men. “Would a man be willing to work for this? Of course not.” Like most working age men in the border district, her son too has migrated to nearby Gujarat, where he earns about Rs 300 a day working on construction sites.
In this ST seat, where the Bharatiya Tribal Party is posing a tough challenge to the Congress, the MNREGA’s success among women such as Laali could mean a lot. Due to the high rate of male migration, Banswara usually sees the highest women voter turnout in the state — in 2014, 71% of the women voters cast their ballot, compared to 66% of men.
In neighbouring Udaipur constituency, nearly two dozen women from the tribal Paduna settlement have gathered at Raju Bai’s house. They are back from doing MGNREGA work which, they say, they got only after two to four years of knocking on the doors of the panchayat office. Udaipur is a BJP bastion, but their vote is for the “haath (Congress)”, they chorus.
Says Raju Bai: “They (the BJP) discriminate on grounds of religion/caste. They don’t see the marginalised. All we care about is our livelihood.”