Bagwada, Rajasthan: It’s 10 am and a group of women in Bagwada village have gathered at Tofa Devi’s house.
The woman sitting at the centre is jotting down details in a register. The others hand over money to her.
This is a weekly meeting of a recently created self help group (SHG) comprising 10 women. Every eighth day since it was formed, the SHG collects Rs 10 from its 10 members. The group pool in the money so that members can manage their urgent expenses. With no work since the beginning of the lockdown, this fund is all that they can use to make ends meet.
Bagwada, located just 28 kilometres from the state capital of Jaipur, mainly has villagers from the Scheduled Caste community. The men work as drivers or construction labourers in Jaipur. They have not been able to find work since the lockdown was imposed in March. It is the women who had depended on the MGNREGA. However, they have not received work under the scheme since the beginning of 2020.
Bagwada’s significant population of SCs and Scheduled Tribes do not and are thus unable to employ themselves with the only other option available, agriculture.
According to the data available on the MGNREGA’s official website, the gram panchayat of Bagwada has issued 29 muster rolls in the year 2020-21 and has given employment to only 176 women.
This number is not even 25% of the total households in Bagwada. According to the 2011 Census, this village has about 705 households, having a total population of 4,866 people.
The Bagwada gram panchayat consists of two villages: Bagwada and Bheevpura. While the women in Bheevpura village are getting work under MGNREGA, women in Bagwada claim that they have not received any this year.
Under the MGNREGA, a rozgar sahayak (literally, income assistant) is appointed at each gram panchayat to process the wage-seekers’ application for work. The gram panchayat has to process each such application and give work within 15 days after submission of the application. If this is not done, the wage-seekers are entitled to receive unemployment allowances. The gram panchayat is also required to assess the demand for work.
However, in practice, wage-seekers who are not comfortable with writing an application to demand work under MGNREGA, orally request the gram panchayat to give them work. This practice offers opportunity for misuse by the gram panchayats while allocating work to them.
The women in Bagwada have alleged that they have requested the sarpanch several times during the lockdown to process their application for work but that he has never paid attention and kept on making excuses.
“The government claims that the MGNREGA work is being given even to migrant workers who have returned to their homes but here, we didn’t receive MGNREGA work even when we had no means to earn during the lockdown,” said Kani Devi.
“The sarpanch tells us, tumne thodi banaya sarpanch jo tumhare liye kaam karun (loosely translated, it means ‘you didn’t vote for me in the election, why should I work for you’),” she added.
Notably, as per the details of the demand for work in the year 2020-21, available on the website, the Bagwada gram panchayat had issued work to wage seekers only in between May and June, 2020.
There are no details of work demanded and subsequently allocated in the months of January, February, March and most of the April this year in the Bagwada gram panchayat.
“The sarpanch has been recently elected this year and is not very active, which is why the women are not getting MGNREGA work,” Rahul Gurjar, former sarpanch of Bagwada told The Wire.
However, the gram panchayat administration has maintained that there have been significant work generated in the panchayat under the scheme. Speaking to The Wire, Gauri Shankar, secretary at the Bagwada gram panchayat said, “There were some issues [in creating demand for work] during the lockdown but in the past one month, people are getting employment. About 75 women are going to work in the panchayat.”
No employment under MGNREGA has added to the woes of the women in Bagwada. They have been forced to borrow money from self-help groups for basic needs like purchasing essential food items.
Pooja Devi Bunkar, one of the contributors in the SHG, requested in the latest meeting a loan of Rs 200 to purchase sugar.
“Now, as everyone stays at home for the whole day, they keep demanding something or the other to eat. Even tea is prepared four times a day but all this requires money. I’ve already exhausted all my savings during the lockdown. Last week, when I went to withdraw money, I was told that only Rs 151 is left in my account. It was Rs 3,000 earlier,” she said.
“I’m totally dependent on this fund now. So far, I’ve borrowed Rs 500 and I have no means to pay it back,” she added.
Tofa Devi has two daughters. Her husband has not been able to resume his job as a construction labourer since the lockdown and she has not been able to get work under MGNREGA.
The family finds it difficult to even purchase sanitary napkins. “One packet of sanitary napkin in the market costs Rs 40 and it lasts only for a day. Both my daughters need pads and this alone costs us Rs 200 every month. Earlier, they used to get pads from the school, but now, since even the schools are closed, this expense too has fallen on us,” said Tofa Devi, who recently borrowed money from the fund to buy sanitary napkins.
The women further added that the price of the commodities have increased, making their problems worse. “The shopkeeper sells almost everything at a higher price, saying that he is also charged a much higher rate,” said Santara Devi.