MGNREGS and changing household decision-making: How the scheme has led to women empowerment

MGNREGS recently completed ten years of implementation and this article seeks to explore a specific outcome of the programme: women’s empowerment. The findings of this study will be presented at a policy workshop commemorating 10 years of MGNREGS in Chennai on 28 January, 2017.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is one of the largest welfare programmes of its kind in the world. It has some unique features: (a) It offers equal wages for men and women for manual labour; (b) wage payments are made to individual bank accounts of workers, and (c) participants are self-selected into the programme and benefits are conditional on completing assigned work. There are two broad outcomes that the government envisioned for this program: Asset creation (mostly agricultural, but also sanitation, schools, among others), and employment generation.

However, MGNREGS has also been shown to provide opportunities to women and other socially-excluded groups to take part in meaningful labour and participate in the labour market. Gender parity in India (in terms of wages, labour market opportunities, and social norms) still has a long way to go; for example, India is ranked 130th out of nearly 200 countries in the Gender Inequality Index put out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). As per the MGNREGS Act, both, women and Scheduled Caste/Tribes (SC/STs) must each make up at least 33% of the total beneficiaries within the Panchayat. As per latest available data, the share of women in total labour days under MGNREGS is well above that figure at 56.3%. However, women’s participation varied widely by states as seen in the chart below – while states like Tamil Nadu had 85.4% participation, other states like Assam had just 33.59% (the minimum required). Thus, if MGNREGS has implications for gender inequality and thereby empowering women, then it becomes important to understand the pathways through which this takes place.

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One such pathway considered in recent research among MGNREGS workers in Tamil Nadu was the extent of say wives and husbands share when deciding expenditure for household commodities, like rice, salt, or medicines. Allocation of resources within the household can be a jointly undertaken activity by spouses and can have consequences for economic and human development. For instance, deciding to allocate more resources toward food rather than recreation yields positive benefits toward overall health. The manner in which husbands and wives arrive at such allocation decisions is therefore of interest to researchers as well as policymakers.

Findings indicate that in households where only the female participates in MGNREGS, the female tends to have a lower say in decision-making. This indicates that her husband may exercise greater power over household expenses due to his participation in other higher-paid labour activities. Other studies have suggested that when females participate in MGNREGS, there is an indirect impact on the education and health outcomes of her children and on her likelihood of taking part in other labour market activities. Given the lack of quality household data related to the programme, there is still ambiguity about the magnitude and direction of these impacts.

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In addition to the general benefits of MGNREGS, appending women’s empowerment as an advantage of the programme can act as an incentive for future policies. For instance, identifying whether women participants in MGNREGS have superior bargaining positions in comparison to non-participants can enable targeted interventions toward future MGNREGS workers. Similarly, ensuring that policies permit women to receive work and wages via MGNREGS during agricultural off-seasons can supplement their income from agricultural activities and ensure an independent source of income for women when it is most needed. If MGNREGS is implemented in sync with the agricultural seasons, it will ensure greater benefits targeted toward women. Furthermore, it may also result in an improvement in the intra-household resource allocation of women, and subsequently, an improvement in household outcomes where the preferences of women are expressed.

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It is important to recognise that policy may be constrained in influencing intra-household dynamics, particularly in the case of rural India, where such dynamics have come to persist over centuries. Even wholesale changes in legislation (such as the amendment to the Hindu Succession Act that gave women equal rights as men over inheriting property) have had limited impact in altering such dynamics. However, research suggests that better targeting and implementation can result in greater autonomy in decision-making for women, therefore improving their bargaining position within the household.

(Anirudh Tagat and Hansika Kapoor are Research Authors, at the Departments of Economics and Psychology, respectively, at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai. Monk Prayogshala is a not-for-profit academic research organisation based in Mumbai that works in the social sciences.)


Updated Date: Jan 24, 2017 08:32 AM

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