By Amarpal Singh Verma
The issue of 33% reservation for women in Parliament and State legislatures has faced several obstacles. Not just in democratic institutions, sharing power seems to be a cause of disagreement even when it comes to schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Six months ago, when the Bhilwara administration declared that all MGNREGA mates in the district will henceforth be women, many men protested as they were not interested in working under women. While men claimed the move was “unconstitutional”, women were a happy lot.
“Why are men jealous? We have to do physical labour even as a mate, for which we are paid Rs 235 per day. How does it hurt men when a poor village woman is able to earn this much money?” Bhupendra Kaur, a mate in Hanumangarh district’s Chak Buhd Singh village, told 101Reporters.
Bhilwara is no exception. In fact, Rajasthan government’s decision to fill more than 50% of the mate positions across the State with women has been met with resistance. Though the decision was made around seven years ago, it was not implemented properly.
Officially, the reasons given were difficulty in finding educated women in the village, and women not showing much interest in the job. With the number of women mates still low across Rajasthan, MGNREGA Commissioner PC Kishan had issued fresh orders two years ago instructing to employ 50% women as mates in every gram panchayat, giving special priority to the differently-abled, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and those living below the poverty line (BPL).
Due to persistent pressure from the administration on the district-level officers and extensive publicity, women started to come forward. For instance, Hanumangarh district had only 21% women mates two years ago. Today, the number has increased to 59.86%.
Except in Banswara, Baran, Barmer, Bundi, Chittorgarh, Dausa, Dholpur, Dungarpur, Jhalawar and Tonk districts, 50% of MGNREGA mates in all other districts of Rajasthan are women. In Hanumangarh, Bharatpur, Churu, Jaisalmer, Jalore, Jodhpur, Kota, Nagaur, Pratapgarh, Udaipur, Alwar and Bikaner districts, this is between 60 to 90%.
Among those who oppose such measures is Shravan Kumar Pawar, the former State head of MGNREGA Mates Pradesh Association. “This move has deprived men of employment. Where will they go,” he asked.
Mohammed Rafi, a mate in Hanumangarh’s Dhaliya village, echoed Pawar’s sentiment. “We too have to think about our families’ welfare. All work going to women stands against the idea of the right to equality,” Rafi said.
Responding to these claims, Preetpal Kaur, another MGNREGA mate in Dhaliya, said women found it difficult to get work outside the village. “If they manage to get employed outside, family responsibilities still dissuade them. In such a situation, it is better that we get work in the village itself. Men have the option to migrate for work. If the government is providing us employment, men should welcome such steps,” she said.
Meanwhile, Ramesh Saharan, the State patron of MGNREGA Mates Pradesh Association, said men were not opposed to the idea of making 50% mates women. “However, giving all the mate positions to women will deprive men of work, and it is not justified,” he said, while warning that the Bhilwara model will soon be adopted across the State.
MGNREGA Executive Engineer Rishikesh Singh explained how things turned in favour of women in Bhilwara. “Earlier, 90% of the workers were women, while men would monitor their work as mates. Taking note of this, District Collector Ashish Modi and Zila Parishad CEO Shilpa Singh decided to appoint women as mates,” he told 101Reporters.
Rishikesh said there was a common belief that women were more honest and transparent at work. “Once the women were trained and appointed, we began to see positive results too. Earlier, we used to receive many complaints regarding irregularities in recording workers’ attendance, but not anymore. The quality of work has also improved,” he claimed.
However, Saharan said there was no way to measure someone’s honesty. “Both honesty and dishonesty are human traits. It does not make a difference whether you are a man or a woman.”
Women mates in Bhilwara have also been made ‘Suraksha Sakhis’ under a scheme of the police department. They speak to women in the village and collect information on issues affecting them. The move, Rishikesh said, helped the police as well.
Regarding the opposition from men against the mates’ reservation, Rishikesh said the district Collector had clearly stated that the initiative was aimed at empowering women. “During a Zila Parishad meeting on November 11, some representatives had put forward plans for a 60:40 or 75:25 ratio in appointments. However, the Collector turned down both proposals,” Rishikesh said, adding that Bhilwara district is now among a select few across India where all MGNREGA mates are women.
Women believe MGNREGA can be a medium to uplift themselves. Malarampura resident Saroj told 101Reporters that the earnings from MGNREGA work have helped improve their lives. However, working as a mate has not been smooth.
Saroj, who is both an MGNREGA mate and a worker in her village, said, “As a mate, I barely get a fortnight’s work in a month. Hence, I work as a labourer for the rest of the days. Also, MGNREGA labourers usually receive their salaries before the mates. I am yet to get my one year’s salary as a mate,” she informed, adding that the pay was assured since it was a government job.
Sharing a similar experience, Bhupendra Kaur said, “I have written several times to the authorities concerned regarding my salary, but to no avail.” Saroj said it would have been better if the payments were timely.
The women have to purchase smartphones independently for their job as MGNREGA mates. Though both Saroj and Kaur bought them on EMI, they said the money should have been reimbursed as they were using them for official work.
Women mates agree on the fact that men cannot stand seeing them do all the supervision. “They underestimate us,” Kaur said.
Amarpal Singh Verma is a Rajasthan-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.