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The National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP), formulated consequential to the NREG Act, 2005, has no doubt, been of benefit to a vast number of families from rural India. This social-welfare legislation has proved instrumental in creating employment, albeit temporary, to those lacking adequate means of livelihood. The present context upon which I wish to comment, is one that exemplifies the connection, or rather the absence thereof, in the spheres of law and society. The exclusion of single women and widows from the ambit and benefit of the NREGP is no small matter.

The background to this comment is based on P. Sainath’s article in the Hindu dated May 22, 2007 and can be read here:  http://www.hindu.com/2007/05/22/stories/2007052200840900.htm 

The article, in essence, deals with case-studies of single and widowed women in Andhra Pradesh who have been refused employment under this Programme on the ground that they lacked a male partner joining for work. Many of the widows’ farmer-husbands committed suicide in light of the extremely miserable conditions for agrarian production which have been long prevalent in A.P (and many other parts of the country) now. Such reports have even received confirmation from officials in the Government. Digressing slightly, it can be stated there is a complete lack of awareness as to the fact that the widowed women of farmers are all the more in need of employment as a result of the deficient means of livelihood.

If one observes the reasons for refusal to provide employment to these women, it can be noted that such employment is contingent on the presence/ absence of a male partner at work. The fundamental assumption, therefore, is that productivity and work will be compromised if single/widowed women are employed without male workers to “compensate” such depletion in productivity. In short, only male workers can be trusted, so to say, to maintain standards of efficiency at work. Inherently discriminatory in nature, such tendencies do well to perpetuate the myth of the “able-bodied worker”. It would be truistic to say that the very purpose of the NREG Act is destroyed if such notions are encouraged. If employment were to be provided on such fallacious grounds based on efficiency, rooted in gender bias, we would only be promoting discrimination; not to mention the fact that livelihood of families run by women (no meagre number, that) would be thrown into (further?) economic backwardness.

The law in its implementation has to be conscious of ground realities in society. A social welfare legislation is absolutely redundant if in practice, it encourages such myths and discriminates on the basis of norms clearly unconstitutional. An understanding of social and gender equality is critical to the benefit of its subjects in society.

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