The Magic Of Invisible Worker

The Magic Of The Invisible Worker
Women in the National Food for Work Programme
24 July, 2005 Brinda Karat
IN a remote village in Rajgarh block of Mirzapur district, before dawn breaks groups of workers make their way to a food for work site where they are digging a large water conservation tank in the National Food for Work Programme (FFWP). There are an equal number of women in the group of about seventy workers. In the context of the popular demand for at least one third reservations for women in workdays created in employment schemes, their presence could be taken as a positive aspect of the project. But in discussions with these workers and hundreds of others at dozens of similar worksites across the states of Maharashtra, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, a CPI(M) organised campaign unraveled a different story.
The FFWP, redesigned by the UPA government, is fully funded by the centre with the wage component to be paid partly in grains and partly in cash. There are several problems with the existing guidelines. For example, the works are very restrictive, at present only earthwork like digging tanks for water conservation is permitted. These weaknesses need to be addressed urgently. The neo-liberal policy framework has produced an unprecedented crisis in agriculture with a cascading effect of unemployment and hunger on millions of families dependent on agricultural work, work that has sharply decreased to less than fifty days work a year. Apart from landless workers, members of poor peasant families who are steeped in debt because of losses incurred in agricultural operations are also driven to find work on the FFWP sites. The successful implementation of this ambitious project as a precursor to the Employment Guarantee Act is therefore literally a life and death issue for millions of our people. Why else would women and men, many of them frail and with diminishing strength, go day after day in temperatures reaching 45 degrees to dig and lift hard earth?
But the deepest shame is that the productivity levels set in the food-for-work programmes are virtually impossible to achieve. To be paid a minimum wage, a worker is expected to dig 100 cubic feet, or about 4000 kilograms of mud, often hard rocky soil which requires much more effort and energy. The worker also has to lift the earth and carry it some distance away. Only if this distance is 20 metres or more will the worker get a small supplementary compensatory rate called the lead and lift rate. Thus two separate labour processes of digging the mud and then lifting the mud and clearing the area are combined into one and paid a single wage according to current practice all over the country.
What is the magic governments use to get so much work done? Simply this: Invisibilise the second worker, the shadow who lifts the earth carrying 30 to 35 kilos of mud on her head, a hundred and fifty times a day, sometimes climbing mounds of mud thirty feet high, to dump the load. To reach the productivity standards for a single wage set in different states, actually two workers are required. In many cases a couple works together and it is the woman who does the earth lifting. Without her work less than half the amount specified would be dug. Yet in all the sites visited with the exception of the site in Manidhara village, Sadar block West Midnapore Bengal, the woman worker was not paid at all. In Manidhara, the panchayat intervened to ensure equal wages for the woman worker. This was done by reducing the productivity standard to fifty to sixty cubic feet per worker so that a couple could complete 100 cubic feet or more and get a double wage. However even here there was no calculation of earth lifting as a separate process, only the creative thinking of the panchayat ensured an equal wage for women.
In the FFWP sites, single women cannot find independent work since their earth lifting work is not calculated separately. We found the most tragic examples like that of two widows working together, one digging and the other lifting, and a mother working with two children. Even after an 11-hour workday they were unable to meet even half of the target.
In the transport godowns of Ajmeri gate Delhi, a coolie lifting 4000 kilograms of sacks of grain from one truck parked next to a godown a few feet away would be paid a minimum of 180 rupees. In Mumbai it would be double the rate. The rates are low enough. But in India’s villages in government organised projects earth lifters do the work for free.
This savage exploitation has gone unmarked because it is women who do most of the earth lifting. But the main problem is the calculation of the work itself. A drastic overhauling of the calculations of piece rates for earth work is required. Each separate activity like digging or lifting must be given a separate minimum wage. Only then will the invisible worker get her rightful due.