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Empowered women of Rajasthan

Jul 21, 2009

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan has been spearheading a social movement in India for close to two decades now. Ita Mehrotra traverses the villages of Rajasthan to find how women have been playing a pivotal role in every struggle – be it the fight for governance accountability or the effective implementation of employment guarantee law.

Ajmer district: Founded by Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is a well-known social movement that began in Rajasthan in 1990.

The successful enactment of the Rajasthan Right to Information Act and the national Right to Information Act 2005 has been attributed to the efforts of the MKSS.

It was also instrumental in helping to establish the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) – that provides a legal guarantee for 100 days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work for a statutory minimum wage.

This summer I decided to join Roy and her team to understand first-hand this unique movement. During May and June 2009, we travelled to 10 villages – from Devdungri, where the MKSS centre is located, to Vijaypura, Kadampuru, Tilonia, Peesagan and Arrai – across the state, staying for a couple of days to a week in each and interacting with villagers working on NREGA sites.

Dominance of women workforce

One of the first things I noted while visiting these sites was the overpowering dominance of women workers. About 90% of the NREGA workers in the state are women – of all ages: from 18 to 80!

Men still tend to migrate to other states, although migration has decreased drastically after the NREGA came into force.

"Men still tend to migrate to other states, although migration has decreased drastically after the NREGA came into force"

Prior to 2005 when the scheme was not in place, the Akal Raahat (Famine Relief) scheme would bring in about Rs 30 million (US$1=Rs 49.4) per gram panchayat (village council).

The Akal Raahat (Famine Relief) scheme was a state run scheme, with a minimum of Rs 60 per day wage. Here, unlike NREGA, there was no minimum days secured to the worker. Moreover, there were no redressal mechanisms in place – workers were almost always underpaid or not paid at all.

Today, around Rs 100 million crore is delivered annually to gram panchayats specifically under the NREGA.

But how has NREGA helped women? When interacting with the women workers at a work site in Bhogadeet (Ajmer district), Manju, 30, provided the answer: "This work puts money directly into my hands. Now I can keep an account of where the money is spent and I can pay for my children's school fees. I don't have wait for my husband to bring money home."

Inspiring leaders

According to Aruna Roy, 63, it is women like Manju – rather than leaders like herself or any administrative body – who have worked and struggled towards the realisation of this Act that has transparency and minimum wages conditionalities.

Naurati Bai, 65, from Harmara village in Ajmer district, is one such outstanding individual, who has been a pillar of strength in the struggle in Rajasthan. Roy firmly believes that it is through the friendship of women like Naurati and through a relationship of learning that they have been together able to form a much larger movement.

Recalls Roy: "Naurati, a Dalit (downtrodden caste), was mainly preoccupied with oppression and injustice. She was fearless. I met her when she first organised a strike for minimum wages in her village in 1981. Gifted with the ability to speak with power and determination, even from behind her ghunghat (head-covering veil), she became first my initiator and later my comrade in the struggle against injustice," recalls Roy.

"Naurati, a Dalit, was gifted with the ability to speak with power and determination, even from behind her ghunghat. She became first my initiator and later my comrade in the struggle against injustice"

Today, Naurati has earned the respect of countless village people. An employee at an NREGA work site in Harmara, she speaks with strength and vigour when talking about how the movement for minimum wages started and how it was carried forward. No longer behind a ghunghat, one can see her animatedly recounting those early days and can understand why Roy credits women at the grassroots for their current empowerment.

Naurati has her store of recollections. "Initially, when we used to strike for minimum wages, there were major protests. We used to face stiff resistance from the panchayat.

Slowly, it grew into a large movement and many women's groups formed in several villages. These groups started taking up all kinds of issues - dowry, sati and other crimes committed against women. They also started taking up economic issues like ration cards and non payment or low payment of wages at famine relief work sites," she says.

Economic empowerment

A consequence of the large-scale economic empowerment – NREGA beneficiaries are meant to receive their cash income or income in the post bank accounts every fortnight – is new-found confidence among women. They even file complaints in cases of delayed payments now.

"There is a self-confidence that we women have got today, which you wouldn't have found 20 years ago. Today, we also talk louder - sometimes even louder than the men," smiles Naurati.

Recounting her journey through the struggle, which led to the generation of the Employment Guarantee Act, Roy says: "Over the years, I met many Nauratis... an endless list of courageous women who commit themselves to issues and action. Naurati took me on a journey in which we explored social realities in a new manner altogether. I was forced to learn different ways of talking, listening and responding to poor peoples' needs. But more basic was learning to face my own fears of public inquiry, of public criticism, of ridicule, of my timidity to engage in street politics."

Munni Devi, 70, of Mala village, reflects that in the absence of any children and family and with no resources such a land and animals to fall back on, the NREGA has helped her to survive. Without it she admits, main to mar jaati (I would have died)!"

Roy reflects on Munni's response to the sustenance that a mere 100 days of labour has guaranteed.

"I was moved to tears when I heard her talk... The sense of basic food security that has been achieved for the thousands of rural women is revolutionary on its own. Stable income for even four to five months in the year transforms their lives beyond what anyone sitting in his or her city home can possibly imagine," says Roy.

Organising melas

The MKSS also organises melas (day-long open fora for discussion) to address new demands and old grievances related to NREGA.

What the women most vocally demand at work sites today is a two-fold increase in the number of days that the scheme offers and the provision for two members per household to hold a job card instead of present one.

"The government must increase the days of labour, how are we to feed our families the year round with just Rs 9,000 when we have five children?" questions Rameshwari Devi, 40, at one such mela held in Arrai block, Ajmer district.

At another site close to village Devdungri, Sita Devi, 50, a poor illiterate villager, proves how the NREGA has instilled confidence to express dissent and demand entitlements in remote areas.

"At another site close to village Devdungri, Sita Devi, 50, a poor illiterate villager, proves how the NREGA has instilled confidence to express dissent and demand entitlements in remote areas"

Raising the issue of delayed payments she says, "If we don't get money within the month then there is no way we can meet our day-to-day expenses. We do not have any savings. Right now we have not got payments for about two months. The government has to speed things up. Otherwise, we will protest!"

The voices at the melas are of those who matter – women who are directly affected. Interestingly, there is also often melody in the air too, as Roy and others of MKSS – often referred to as 'Aruna Party' by the locals – sing inspirational songs and slogans composed by activists and women beneficiaries.

The groups attending the mela respond to chants like har haath ko kaam do, kaam ka pura daam do (work for every hand, pay for every work). After all, these women are not mere spectators but owners of a movement.

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