October 13th, 2009 12:10 EST
Forty Five Percent NREGA Workers are Old and Destitute
Madurai (Women`s Feature Service) - "Please don`t write about us. We will not get even this work and the little money we get," pleads Saraswatiamma, pausing under the hot mid-day sun. She then resumes digging the irrigation channel in the foothills of the Sirumalai hills in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu. It is an old waterway here, which has silted up, and the government has decided to dig it up once again, using local labour under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).
Saraswatiamma is 70 years old. Her friend Goriamma is 72. They are digging the canal along with their daughters-in-law and daughters. The canal passes through land that belongs to the richest man in the area. Most workers in this group of 50 are women, with just one young male supervisor.
Saraswati and Goriamma are among the thousands of poor, old people who are dependent on this job scheme for their livelihood. "About 45 per cent of NREGA workers in any given group are old and destitute," observes Revathi R., activist and filmmaker from Nagapattinam.
In India, a person over 60 is considered `old`. Today, the country has the second largest elderly population in the world - nearly 90 million (Source: HelpAge India). But what have we done to care for this segment? Sudha Ramalingam, a rights lawyer, says, "We really have no social security, especially for the poor and the old in rural India. Under the Parents` Maintenance And Welfare Act of 2007, the central and state governments have power to give direction; they have the power to establish old age homes and provide medical care. But today, in the villages, you will find more and more among the elderly and disabled searching for work. The NREGA has been a boon for them in the sense that it at least gives them a way to earn a little. But sadly, more often than not, they get only 50 days of work and half the stipulated money," she says. The NREGA promises 100 days of employment in every financial year to adult members of any rural household willing to do unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage.
"Yes, on paper it is 100 days of work. In reality, if we get 40 days of work and Rs 40 a day (US$1=Rs 48.5), it would be a miracle," says Boseamma, a construction worker who is in her late 60s. Last year, she got NREGA workers in her group to demand a wage of Rs 80 per day and 100 working days. "Everyone is poor and needy. And no one wants the old. If I do not lead the protest, who will?" she asks.
Researcher Sarmistha Pal did an `old age in India` study for the Cardiff Business School, UK, in 2004. She says, "Public policy on ageing in developing countries has tended to emphasise the welfare requirements of older populations, ignoring the wider dimensions of livelihoods in old age." In her paper, she says: "Our results raise concerns for the elderly who lack wealth, health or both or are disadvantaged in other ways, e.g., widowed/separated elderly women..." and adding that protection from children cannot be regarded by itself as insurance in old age.
She points out that although India has several poverty reduction programmes which are most likely to target the increasing numbers of poorer elderly people, there is a pronounced inter-state disparity that needs to be addressed.
Of India`s 28 states, only two - Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan - have been found to meet the implementation standards set out for the nationwide job guarantee scheme. And even in those states there is discontentment. The outlay for NREGA in 2009-2010 is Rs 3,91,000 million and the Union government says it has already spent Rs 4,44,860 million on the programme over the last three years in 200 districts. It is only after May 2009 elections that the government has announced that the scheme is being extended to 593 districts though work in these 393 new districts has not begun yet.
The three Tamil Nadu districts of Dindigul, Sivaganga and Cuddalore are among the 22 that received national-level awards for excellence in NREGA administration for 2007-08. The state government`s rural development department claims that 18,45,383 households have been provided employment under the NREGA.
It also says that as much as Rs 16,780 million of the Rs 98,890 million released for Tamil Nadu has been spent and about 21,332 of the 29,500 `works` taken up under scheme have been completed by March 2009. This means, in one of the better administered states, more than Rs 50,000 million from NREGA funds remain unused, stuck at some point of their delivery.
The rural development department says that women have got more than 79 per cent of the workdays since 2006, when the programme was implemented in the state, indicating that there are more women than men on NREGA worksites.
The problems on these worksites are very apparent. "Very few civil society institutions really monitor NREGA, there are not enough programme officers and local people do not have the tools to do good social audits. The technical officers are whimsical at best and disbursal depends on local politics and caste," reveals Usha M., an activist of the CPI (M-L) from Madurai.
In Seethamangalam panchayat, near Villupuram district, Ashok Kumar, a work group leader complains that "hundred people are shown on the rolls, but only 50 get work, and get paid just Rs 50 for seven hours of work each day."
In Vadipatti panchayat in Maduari, Papati, 70, Lakshmi, 70, and Vellaima, 61, are all expected to do the same amount of work even though Vellaima has a problem in her legs. They also complain of random disbursement work and pay. "We are grateful if we get two months of work and Rs 60 per workday," says Taiamma, 55, from one group here.
There is also anger over the cumbersome paperwork. "The government tells us that all documentation must be correct. To get even a photograph taken costs more than Rs 50. Where do we get this money? You have to grease the palms of the officials issuing the job cards. The wait can be long, as long as three months," says Mayakka, an elderly woman of Seminipatti village, Madurai.
But people are now raising a voice for their rights. In Tirunelveli district, the Collector was surrounded last year by protestors demanding full wages. On August 16, 2008, the police assaulted 500 people, mostly women of the Dalit-majority Rettanai village, who were demanding their due of a daily wage of Rs 80. When Left parties and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) protested, the minister in charge of rural development and NREGA implementation, M.K. Stalin, simply termed it a "political conspiracy."
In Andipatti assembly constituency in Theni district, an AIADMK stronghold, two women - one almost blind and the other a widow - led a protest in July 2008 demanding full wages for work on land held by local politicians and registered under false names.
But perhaps the last word on this issue belongs to Mythili, 24, a farmer`s daughter from Tiruchirapally, who has a post-graduate degree in social work. She finds it terrible that people who are over 70 years have to dig for seven hours to get Rs 50! Says she, "It doesn`t say much about India as a welfare state!"
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)
By Papri Sri Raman