VELLANAD(KERALA): Women earning their livelihood through the central government's rural employment guarantee scheme in this panchayat near Thiruvananthapuram have a simple wish list: reduced working hours, higher wages, uniforms, and more days of work. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), say the women, helps them cope up with poverty but does not take them beyond their hand-to-mouth existence.
Chandamma, 72, is among a group of 12 women and a man digging out slit from a water reservior in the panchyat as part of works under MGNREGA. Her husband is blind and she lost her son in an accident.
Chandamma does not have a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card as the survey was carried out when her son was alive. She is eligible for old age pension, but the money does not reach her. MGNREGA is her only hope to a life of dignity.
Chandamma has a daughter who also works under MGNREGA and each of them earn Rs.150 for a day's work. The two women strive to make savings so that the money can last them when they will not get work under the central scheme on completing 100 days of wage employment.
According to officials, manual unskilled work under MGNREGA is provided to a rural household for 100 days in a fiscal year, but there is a demand that the minimum number of days for guaranteed wage employment should be extended to 200.
Chandamma is among the women who feel that MGNREGA should be extended beyond 100 days and its working hours reduced.
"Working hours should be reduced. Women have to manage their households, get their children to schools," she said.
Officials say that working hours under MGNREGA were 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the state government had demanded the timing should be between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.
For Anil Kumar, 37, the only man in the group of MGNREGA workers at the water reservior in Vellanad, the rural employment scheme has been a harbinger of hope.
Kumar, who looks older than his years, has been afflicted with ailments that have rendered him very frail and weak.
"If MGNREGA is not there, it will be difficult for me to survive," Kumar told IANS.
Kumar's two children are in school and he wants them to study as long as they want to.
"The daily wage should be raised to Rs.250," he said.
Thangamani, who has studied till Class 8, points to her clothes soiled by mud in the reservior and demands that uniforms be given to MGNREGA workers. She also demands that the workers should be given caps to cope with the scortching afternoon sun.
Officials say women workers spend the money they earn through MGNREGA in running households, but that was not always the case with men.
"Many men splurge their earnings on booze. Kerala has a high level of liquor consumption in the country," an official said.
He said more than 90 percent of MGNREGA workers in Kerala were women.
The "lack of industry" in rural areas and scarcity of government employment were factors that contribute to demand for MGNREGA, said the official.
Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, who visited Kerala last week, gave no assurance to the demand that the minimum number of days under MGNREGA should be extended to 200.
He said the government would, instead, train a youth in skilled work from families that have completed 100 days under MGNREGA.
"I don't believe children of NREGA workers should remain NREGA workers. They should be given training in modern skills," Ramesh said.
MGNREGA was launched in 2006 as an ambitious demand-driven scheme by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, to enhance livelihood security of rural households by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year.