BHUBANESWAR: Bharati Pradhan (name changed), a 46-year-old orthopaedically-challenged woman of Kanas block in Puri district, gets a monthly pension of Rs 300 under the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana and a few kgs of rice from the State Government. The money just meets her medicine requirements. The youngest among five siblings, she was born with disability and could manage to study till Class V. Her parents, daily wagers by profession, could neither afford her treatment nor education. Though wheel-chair bound and unskilled, she is keen on being self-reliant but that is a dream.
Securing livelihood has never been an easy task for women with disabilities like Bharati who live in rural areas of Odisha despite implementation of several government schemes including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). They continue to have limited access to livelihood opportunities, be it direct employment or self-employment.
The MGNREGS was implemented to ensure 100 days of wage employment in unskilled manual work for people in rural pockets. According to the Panchayati Raj Department sources, only 5,362 different-abled persons worked under MGNREGS in 2016-17 financial year. Less than five per cent of this labour force constituted women with disabilities. Similarly, the total number of disabled people working under MGNREGS stood at 5,586 in 2015-16, 3,352 in 2014-15 and 3,587 in 2013-14. Although there are no reports on the number of women with disabilities employed in these three financial years, Project Directors of all the 30 District Rural Development Agencies (DRDAs) in the State, who are responsible for implementation of the scheme, admitted to low participation from this vulnerable group due to lack of awareness and a disabled-friendly environment.
As per the 2011 Census, the total population of persons with disabilities in Odisha is 12,44,402 out of which, 6,74,775 are males and 5,69,627 are females. Sources said at least over two lakh women with disabilities, majority of them illiterate and residing in rural areas, are living below poverty line (BPL) and are in need of gainful employment. The Census points out that a majority of women with disabilities in Odisha suffer from movement-related disability, blindness and hearing impairment. Although their empowerment is only possible by economic independence, that has not been the case so far.
Disability activist, Asha Hans said so many women with disabilities still living below the poverty line points to the fact that there is problem with implementation of employment schemes including the MGNREGS. “Providing employment to these women becomes more necessary as almost 90 per cent of them are dependent on their family members for finances. Studies have shown that disabled women are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts in securing livelihood as they face gender discrimination,” she said, adding that women with disabilities are still considered unfit to don the role of wage earner.
Apparently, the MGNREG Act operational guidelines have a dedicated chapter on jobs outlined for differently-abled women. These include less stressful works like making drinking water arrangements at the work site, plantation, looking after children of workers, land levelling and sprinkling water on newly built walls. However, not many differently-abled women are coming forward to even take up these works, officials admit. “The primary reason for this is lack of awareness and facilities. MGNREGS is considered labour intensive and no efforts are being made to bring them under the scheme or make them aware that they can do less strenuous work and earn the same wage that an abled person does,” said former Odisha State Commissioner for Persons with Disabilities, Kasturi Mohapatra.
She added that the entire approach towards women with disabilities in MGNREGS is a faulty one. “While not many women are aware about the nature of work meant for them under MGNREGS, getting to the work site and security remain the other concern areas. Their family members cannot always accompany them to the work site,” she added. The meagre number of women with disabilities, who are coming forward to work under MGNREGS, are mostly employed in plantation work during monsoon.
Visibility of women with disabilities in the employment guarantee schemes is negligent in districts like Koraput, Malkangiri, Nabarangpur and some Western Odisha districts like Kalahandi, Balangir and Nuapada.
However, Joint Secretary in the Panchayati Raj Department, Bhumesh Behera said since MGNREGS is a demand driven programme, the department provides work to any differently-abled person including women who seek work. “It always depends on their nature of disability. We have to also take into consideration that they cannot do all kinds of works,” he said.
Apparently, the Odisha Government does not yet have clear data on the number of women with disabilities getting 100 days' employment under the MGNREGS. The MIS (Management Information System) developed by the Ministry of Rural Development to keep a record of the workers does not include data on the number of such women taking part in the scheme, the Project Directors pointed out. “Hence, it is difficult to find out if MGNREGS is actually helping women with disabilities or not,” said an officer requesting anonymity.
In fact, every livelihood programme being run by both Centre and State including the skill development and vocational training programmes, has no clarity or data on involvement of women with disabilities. Disability activists feel it is high time the government thinks of gender and disability audit in such schemes.
In the absence of employment, women mostly depend on social security coverage. The State Government provides Rs 300 as pension to disabled people under the Madhu Babu Pension Yojana but the amount is too meagre in today’s time. To avail the pension, they have to produce disability certificates. Ironically, no differently-abled woman has been provided a disability certificate since 2014. According to reports of Department of Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities, of 5.6 lakh differently-abled women in the State, only 41,929 women have received disability certificates so far, thereby denying the rest facilities like education, employment, pension, concession and other benefits. Unlike States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, Odisha Government does not provide unemployment assistance to people with disabilities.
Sanyas Behera, president of Odisha Association of Blind and a visually-challenged activist who has been demanding consideration of a differently-abled person as one separate family unit when job cards are issued under MGNREGS, said there is no clear notification yet by the Odisha Government on the nature of work that can be done by differently-abled men and women even as the Union Government had circulated an order in 2008 regarding work that can be allotted to this category of the labour force. “When jobs are being issued to a household, a differently-abled person is overlooked and an abled person in the family is provided the work. Due to gender discrimination, differently-abled women are entirely left out from this scheme," he said.
Under the Odisha Livelihood Mission, some district administrations have taken the initiative of bringing together women with disabilities and form self-help groups that can churn out things like phenyl, agarbati, jute bags and eatables. However, Sanyas alleged that the number of such SHGs is too less and funds sanctioned by the Centre for vocational training of such women are returned unutilised every year. "Sometimes, the authorities give equipment to these SHGs to produce articles without training them properly in a bid to complete their official reports. As a result, such SHGs do not survive for a long time," Sanyas added.