Why Not Enough Women Are Benefitting From Odisha’s Rural Employment Boost

Odisha’s scheme to increase workdays under MGNREGA has run into systemic challenges, resulting in poor uptake, especially of women workers

By April this year, the mercury had soared past 40 degrees Celsius across most parts of Odisha, including the western district of Kalahandi. The women of Sindipadar, a remote hilly village in the district, have been up and working since 4 am. After completing their household chores, they left home around 7 am, trekking 3 km to a road under construction. Over the next nine hours, with a brief hour-long lunch break in between, they worked hard, picking up rocks for the construction work. 

The women have been working on this project, undertaken by a private company, for four months. They get Rs 200 a day, in cash, for their effort although this is subject to change. For them, this is the only source of employment available though their village is a beneficiary of the state’s promise to give 300 days of guaranteed work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). 

“I have a coolie card, I don’t use it anymore. There is neither work nor money…,” said Mati Gouda, 57. 

The Odisha government, in January 2020, had announced 100 days of additional work for job seekers under MGNREGA in four distressed districts: Balangir, Bargarh, Kalahandi, and Nuapada. By 2022, the workdays were further revised to an additional 200, thus assuring 300 days of work at minimum wages. 

This initiative offered a promising solution for issues like distress migration and bonded labour, especially for those migrants who had returned home during the pandemic.

The initiative reflects positively in numbers too. Since 2020, Odisha has witnessed an increase in the average number of man-days across districts. In the four districts, the increase is above 20%, with their average workdays now higher than the state average. However, the average work days are still below 100 – Balangir (57.3), Bargarh (67.24), Kalahandi (67.76), and Nuapada (78.47). 

When Behanbox visited villages across these districts, it became clear that the implementation of this scheme had run into significant systemic challenges, resulting in poor uptake. Despite its promises, women like Mati Gouda find the implementation disappointing, often receiving fewer workdays and delayed payments.

Systemic challenges of delayed payments, faulty attendance system, and lack of available work often lead to men migrating for work and women looking for alternate work in their villages/ Aishwarya Mohanty

The delay in payments by over six months in some cases, undermines the initiative’s purpose, forcing many villagers to migrate for work. Accessing bank payments also remains challenging due to limited banking infrastructure, unreliable internet, and long distances. 

The mandatory digital attendance system under MGNREGA, introduced in 2023, poses additional barriers: women must upload photos twice daily, but poor connectivity and heavy domestic responsibilities hinder their participation.

Civil society organisations acknowledge the initiative’s positive intent but highlight systemic flaws. Increasing the number of workdays without adequate job provision results in limited opportunities, causing dissatisfaction. The technological requirements and delays in payments exacerbate these issues, making cash-based local projects more appealing.

‘I Cannot Afford To Wait For Payment’

Mati had high hopes when she heard about the promise of 300 days of work under MGNREGA. It meant she could take care of her own expenses and that of her household. However, in 2022, she could only find work for 13 days excavating a farm pond.

“In my head I thought I would at least get 200 days of work which means Rs 60,000 at the least. But there was hardly any work. The pond work got over within 13 days and there was nothing else to do. How can anyone sustain with just 13 days of work?” she said. 

In addition to the increased workdays, Odisha raised the daily wage by an additional Rs 111 above the Rs 222 promised by the central government, totaling Rs 333 per person per day. The potential earnings for sustaining 300 days of work annually could reach Rs 99,900. The state covers the difference between minimum wages for unskilled workers and the notified wage rate under MGNREGA. But despite being entitled to Rs 4,329, she received only Rs 1,443.  The remaining portion of her wages was delayed for several months. 

“It was a small amount, but a wage I worked for and deserved. I waited patiently for over six months for the full payment. By then, half of my family had already migrated in search of work. I had to stay back to care for my grandchildren,” she said.

She needed the money to repay a loan her family took for constructing a wall of their house. She is yet to repay it. “What is the point of working when I have to endlessly wait for wages?” she asked.

The village witnesses rampant migration due to the absence of livelihood opportunities. Mati’s son and daughter-in-law started migrating for work. “I’m constantly seeking work in the village. With the earnings I make, I can afford my own medicines, contribute a bit to my household, and avoid dependency on others,” she said. “But we do not know what to do once this (road) construction is over. We will be back to zero.”

Dilip Das, chairman of Antoday, a Kalahandi-based nonprofit working on labour migration in the region, points to the question of provision of work. “When you increase the number of days, you increase the number of people applying for work, you unknowingly limit the work. This is why the work is over within 20 days,” he said.

Behanbox reached out to the Director of Special Projects, Panchayati Raj Department, Jyoti Prakash Das, on the problems dogging the scheme but he is yet to respond.

However, even when the payment arrives, withdrawing it is a challenge for many.

Challenges of Remote Banking Access

Women wait outside the bank to collect their payment in Lanjigarh / Aishwarya Mohanty

Despite the demanding schedule at the construction site, the women of Sindipadar are happy being employed by a private firm. “We receive our wages promptly and in cash, eliminating the need to wait endlessly for meagre payments. We can ask for an advance when needed. This feels more secure,” says Archana Majhi, 25.

For them, visiting a bank and withdrawing money is often a full-day task. In the majority of blocks within the district, marked by hilly terrain, patchy internet connectivity, intermittent power supply, and limited banking infrastructure, digital transactions have become arduous and prolonged, resulting in numerous failed attempts to extract cash and forfeiture of earnings. Moreover, in these regions, each bank branch typically serves nearly 200 villages.

“When we reach the bank, we often realise that our wages under MGNREGA haven’t been paid in full. What are we supposed to do then?” asked Mati. This compels people to opt for work where payment is made in cash.

“The bank is 15 km from our village. We share a tempo to get there. The bank servers have endless issues. We queue up for an entire day only to return home empty-handed and make the journey again the next day,” said Padma Dura, 60, a resident of Sindhibahali, under Bhatangpadar gram panchayat in Lanjigarh block of the district.

Lanjigarh block, with 197 revenue villages and a population of nearly 48,000, has five banks and seven customer service points. Thuamul Rampur block, with 298 villages and a population of 77,840, has two banks and 10 customer service points. This issue remains a hindrance for all DBT schemes. 

Apart from payments, women participating in work under MGNREGA also face another challenge – the digital upgrade.

Challenges of Digital Attendance

Despite the delayed payments, MGNREGA continues to be the only source of employment opportunities for many women in rural areas. But over the last couple of years, the scheme has been updated with digital processes, which were made mandatory in 2023. 

A recent initiative involves the implementation of a mobile application-based attendance system (NMMS app) for MGNREGA workers. This system necessitates the uploading of two photographs of the worker, taken in the morning and evening, at the worksite to confirm their presence and facilitate payment.

There have been reports on how this system has led to loss of wages due to the mandatory attendance system. But it has also impacted the participation of women in these districts. While intended to streamline processes, these digital requirements have inadvertently hindered women’s participation, adding to their already heavy burden of household responsibilities. 

The law holds significance for female workers as it reserves a minimum of one-third of the total workdays for them. Of the total registered workers in Odisha, 46% are women. And of the total registered women workers, nearly 13 lakh women are not actively working under the employment scheme. 

In Funda village of the migration-prone Golamumda block of Kalahandi district, Chaya Goud, 35 has worked for 27 days under MGNREGA in 2023-24. Her husband has worked for double the number of days. The couple, who were rescued from bondage in 2019, also own a small grocery shop that they had set up by taking a loan of Rs 1 lakh. Through the MGNREGA wages, they intend to repay the loan. 

But the attendance system has limited Chaya’s participation. “I reach for work at the scheduled time but by the time the attendance is taken, I have already lost half an hour or more. The same situation persists when I have to return home after work,” Chaya says. The village struggles with good connectivity which is a major hindrance for the attendance upload. 

She looks after her two young toddlers and ageing parents apart from also managing the shop along with her husband and in his absence. “Before I leave home, I cook lunch for everybody, wash clothes, tidy the house, and finish any other chores. I spend about three to four hours at the shop too.  After returning home, I cook food again and I finally go to sleep after everybody is asleep,” she said. 

“It is usually past 11:30 pm when I get to bed. And I am up at 5 am. With the attendance system and MGNREGA work, I do not remember when I felt rested. For a four-hour work, I remember spending an additional two hours just to get the photographs taken,” she added. 

Chaya’s experience exemplifies, the intersection of work obligations, familial duties, and technological demands has left many feeling overworked and exhausted. 

“I have worked under MGNREGA for the past three years. Irrespective of as many days of work, I was willing to take it up to be able to repay the loans. But with the new system in place, I couldn’t work beyond a point. There is no help at home and I couldn’t manage my time. I felt overworked. So I withdrew and took care of the shop,” she said. 

  • Aishwarya Mohanty is an independent journalist based in Bhubaneswar. She writes on gender, rural issues, social justice and environment. Previously, she worked with The Indian Express.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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