General Elections 2019

Eye-opening study on Punjab's rural women labourers poses many questions in poll season

High debts, sexual exploitation, gender disparity, caste discrimination and exclusion from the political process continue to bedevil these mostly Dalit women

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Friday 22 March 2019
Credit: Adithyan P C

An eye-opening study released on March 19, 2019, on the plight of rural women labourers in Punjab, has brought to centre-stage, the issue of the failure of India’s political system to deliver after more than 72 years of independence.

The document points at the marginalisation of these women, overwhelmingly belonging to Dalit communities, in politics, the economy and also their households.

While bringing out the vulnerability of these women to exploitation of all types, the study also brings out the dire need of programmes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and why they need to be extended in terms of employable days.

‘Socio Economic Conditions and Political Participation of Rural Women Labourers in Punjab’ has been documented by Professor Gian Singh, an expert on rural and agriculture economics, along with his team comprising Dharampal, Gurinder Kaur, Veerpal Kaur and Jyoti.

It was released at Punjabi University in Patiala. Gian Singh got women from his study sample to unveil the work. He disclosed that around 92 per cent of the rural women labourers are Dalits, 7.08 per cent come from Other Backward Castes and the remaining miniscule numbers are from the General category.

Surinder Singh, an economist and a former member of the Planning Commission, pointed out that the most credible part of the work is that it brings out primary data from 1,017 households across 12 districts of Punjab. This, he said, puts a big question mark on the claims of various governments about their deliverance. “There is an increasing shortage of primary data and secondary data is not authentic,” he added.

Pointing at the recent controversy over the present Central government trying to put the lid on a survey underlining the spiralling of unemployment to double digits, Surinder Singh said the previous governments did the same when they did not release poverty estimates for a decade until the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report came.

He has a word of advice for researchers: they should never compare their findings with earlier observations on the topic and should try reasoning instead. Singh further said that researchers should be aware if their research does not address development strategy, poverty, unemployment and socio-economic disparity.

The report’s findings reveal that Punjab’s rural women labourers are facing the brunt of the agrarian crisis, as they reel under debt. “Although the amount of loan taken is not much in most of the cases and is in thousands, yet they are not in a position to pay back. The majority of the loans taken by such households is from non-institutional agencies where the rate of interest is quite high,” said Gian Singh.

“The value of Average Propensity to Consume (APC) is more than unity for the rural woman labour household, which clearly indicates that their consumption expenditure exceeds their income and as a result, the rural woman labour households have to take loans from various sources just to keep their hearths burning,” he told Down To Earth (DTE).

The study underlines that a very large majority of 93.71 per cent of the rural woman labour households are under debt and average amount of debt per sampled household works out to be Rs 53,916.45 and per indebted household is Rs 57,537.28. Of this, more than four-fifths or 81.01 per cent of the total debt is incurred from the non-institutional sources.

Referring to the working conditions of these women labourers, the study underlines that 90.46 per cent of the respondents were not aware about the standard working hours and not even one was aware about the Minimum Wages Act. More than one-third of the respondents or 36.87 per cent were not being paid equal wages for equal work with men.

The conditions under which rural woman labourers work and live expose them to many kinds of diseases. They have to work in the fields, collect dung of animals to make dung cakes, maintain cleanliness at animal sheds besides other jobs. A very large majority of them — 91.84 per cent — are not provided any facility at their workplace such as day care centres, first-aid, canteens and toilets at their workplace.

“One of the most critical issues that concern these women is that of sexual exploitation which they have been reluctant to share. More than 70 per cent respondents kept quiet when asked about their experiences. The reality can be inferred from this. A lot of work needs to be done in this direction,” said Gian Singh.

Throwing more light on this aspect, social activist Gurnam Singh Daudh pointed out, “Their condition is beyond explanation. They have to compromise with honour just to come back for employment the next day. The failure of progressive forces to come together to address their concerns adds to their plight.”

Paramjit, who has been working among the Dalit women in Sangrur, points out, “The mindset is such the employers consider it their right to exploit even educated Dalit girls. The women have to bear casteist slurs on almost daily basis.” She said their right to vote and legal redressal does not exist in reality.

Gian Singh underlines that MNREGA has played a positive role in this aspect. He said, “It instills collective confidence and safety among the rural women labourers. They want MNREGA employment to be extended round the year but in Punjab, employment under the scheme does not even come near to the promised 100 days.”

Daudh added, “Besides extension in employment days, MNREGA workers should be paid basic minimum wages of Rs 600 per day against Rs 240 being paid now.”

The study says that an average rural woman labour household earns Rs 77,198.48 annually in Punjab. Of this, 24.91 per cent comes from hiring out (contractual as well as casual) labour in agriculture, which is too low to meet the basic needs of these households.

“This is the reason that the earning members of the rural woman labour households are also struggling to earn their income from other sources. Among these sources, the major proportion of the total income is earned from hiring out labour in construction work. This is followed by income from salaries, hiring out labour in MNREGA, self-employment, hiring out labour as domestic servants, white-washing, cycle rickshaw pulling or auto rickshaw driving, hiring out labour in brick-kiln work, working as drivers, livestock, vending vegetables or fruits, dairying, labour in grain markets and tailoring. Besides this, an average rural woman labour household received a very small proportion of the total income, i.e. 3.86 per cent as transfer income. In this source, pensions are more important, followed by scholarships and income from relatives or friends in the form of help,” the report underlines.

The document also comes out with some revealing political pointers:

-- A very large majority (95.28 per cent) have no interest in politics as they do not read, listen and watch news.

-- Being illiterate, 89.28 per cent do not know even the name of the Chief Minister of Punjab.

--Similarly, 92.72 per cent failed to tell the name of the Prime Minister of India.

--Almost all the respondents i.e., 99.21 per cent, have no idea about the name of the President of the country.

--A large majority of 83.28 per cent does not know the names of any two female political leaders of the state and 78.56 per cent could not tell the names of the various political parties in India.

-- A majority of the respondents, amounting to 88.59 per cent, have no idea about the present level of women representation in the political arena.

On the positive side though, 95.97 per cent cast their votes in the recent Punjab legislative assembly elections held in 2017.

Gian Singh told DTE, “This scenario emerges when a majority of these women cast their vote by the choice of their senior male family members. But some of these male family members are further pressurised by money-lenders, shopkeepers, traders, employers, landlords, and religious leaders.”

Performing a dual duty at their workplace and on the domestic front, 97.25 per cent have never participated in any political campaign or public assembly. The researchers found that in almost all the cases, their husbands don't share the domestic responsibilities. With almost no involvement in the political process, 96.67 per cent of these women were not willing to be elected as representatives in elections, even if they get an opportunity.

They gave responses like, "asi ane joge kithe? hun tan agle janam vich dekhange? gareeban nu kon moaka dinda?" (We are not worth it. Let’s see in our next birth. Who gives an opportunity to the poor?). These responses themselves bring out the extent of exclusion of the rural woman labourers in the Indian political system.

The study dwells on several other aspects of the lives of these women. It can go a long way in helping policy makers to prepare a road map for future because agrarian crisis and related issues continue unabated. The moot question is whether the policy makers really care?

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