Woman power continues to drive India’s rural job guarantee scheme

The most recent data on allocation of work under the government’s flagship job guarantee scheme reinforces strongly a trend that has become visible over the past few years — the feminisation of the workforce under this scheme.

Interestingly, states with a high participation of women under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) end up getting more work from it, although experts are wary about reading too much into this.

According to the latest approved allocation data with the rural development ministry, which has been reviewed by HT, Kerala has the highest participation of women accounting for 89% of work or allocated person days in 2019-20, followed by Tamil Nadu (86%), under the scheme.

At the other end of the spectrum is India’s most populous Uttar Pradesh, where just 35% of person days are allocated to women. Similarly, in the Hindi heartland state of Madhya Pradesh, just 40% work will go to women. Both states are violating a guideline of the scheme that isn’t aggressively regulated – the job guarantee law stipulates that half of the jobs must go to women.

The national average for women beneficiaries of the scheme in 2019-20 is 57.2%. In 2011-12, women’s share of work stood at just 48%.

Rural development ministry officials maintain that Kerala’s high participation of women reflects the trend of Malayali men going to West Asia, Africa, and even other parts of India for better job prospects. “Similarly in Tamil Nadu, men prefers to work in industries [the state is one of India’s leading manufacturing hubs], leaving more opportunity for women to work in MGNREGS,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity. This person added that Tamil Nadu also has a high concentration of women’s self-help groups, which helps in more utilisation of MGNREGS fund in creating livelihood projects.

Traditionally, states such as Rajasthan — with 68% jobs for women under the scheme — or Andhra Pradesh (60%), along with Tamil Nadu have bagged a bulk of the MGNREGS work almost every year. Work has been given to 7.15 million people in Rajasthan in FY19-20, followed by Andhra Pradesh (7.14 million), Tamil Nadu (5.54 million), and Kerala (1.28 million people).

Interestingly, the allocation in Gujarat is only 1.05 million although some experts say that is a function of the fact that the state has advanced agricultural, manufacturing and cooperative sectors.

A total number of 54.2 million people have been allocated jobs under the scheme in this financial year.

To be sure, the feminisation of the MGNREGS workforce isn’t new. In 2018-19, 90.4% of the jobs allocated in Kerala under it were to women. In 2017-18, the proportion was 90.7%. The corresponding proportions for Tamil Nadu were 85.4% and 85.7 % respectively.

Experts hail the increasing participation of women in MGNREGS and say the latest data shows that women have become the backbone of the job scheme. Nalini Gulati, economist with International Growth Centre, said, “For many years, Indian women have worked hard in the agriculture sector and so they find the kind of manual work needs to be done in MGNREGS very similar in nature. Also, a woman finds it comfortable to work near her home — a facility that MGNREGS provides — while the men take up jobs in a factory or in town [away from home].”

“And one of the key reasons is of course the gender parity in wages. Unlike many other jobs where women are traditionally paid less than men, in the government scheme there is no such discrimination in salary, making it a major motivation for work,” added Gulati.

Experts point out more women workers is not always a guarantee of getting greater share of work as the nature of MGNREGS is such that beneficiaries take up jobs during distress and in the absence of any better jobs. In the past few years, as MGNREGS has focused on conservation of water as a part of an overall mission, states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, even Jharkhand (41% person days by women) were given higher allotment of work. This year, the government has decided to earmark 75% of its person days for water and agriculture related work.

Former rural development secretary Jugal Kishore Mohapatra said, “It is true that women’s participation in industrial labour force is an area of concern in India. But MGNREGS figures show a trend that while the man of the house is increasingly getting involved in non-farm jobs, the woman takes up MGNREGS work. I also think that the government’s focus on creating individual beneficiaries attracts women more.”