Something in me changed as I saw the young man hold the microphone with his artificial arms and talked of the work he did in NREGA. He took care of the paperwork that every field assistant dreads. A visually challenged person in the same meeting told me about how he joined others in desilting his village lake. There are millions of disabled persons in India who do not find opportunities to work and contribute to the society; NREGA can change that and provide them with opportunity to work, contribute to the society, earn an income and live with dignity.
NREGA is an unprecedented opportunity since it is implemented in all villages across India and thus has an unprecedented reach. It provides only 100 days of work at Rs. 100 a day, but this can go a long way in improving economic situation, self-respect, and recognition in the community as a productive member. More than anything else, it can be designed to showcase the abilities of “disabled people” and change the image of disability forever in our society. But as things stand, NREGA is not designed to do any of these today, but with some creative thinking on our part we can change this situation substantially.
Making it accessible
NREGA today mainly provides unskilled manual work. Traditionally works have been designed such that they are most suitable for young, able bodied couples working together in a project. Ashagram tried some interesting experiments in Madhya Pradesh to make these works accessible, mainly by identifying parts of the work that disabled people can do. They pointed out that distributing water, mixing cement, and an assortment of other tasks can be performed easily by people with disabilities. Ashagram’s list will go a long way in making NREGA accessible, but I feel that it is inadequate for many reasons.
Exclusive & inclusive work
NREGA is designed to provide employment when people do not have alternate work. Availability of alternate work is radically different for disabled people, and relying merely on inclusive works cannot help create stable and predictable employment for them. We have to create a class of works that could be done mainly by disabled people when they wish to find work. In creating some projects exclusively for the disabled we can also allow for some skilled work, some of which can be done from their homes.
Many disabled people in Tamil Nadu are trained in weaving chairs. Their talents could be used to provide basic furniture to schools, child care centres and government offices. St. Joseph’s hospital in Trichy trains blind people to cultivate vegetables; it should be possible to create a kitchen garden for all schools and anganwadis using such talent. Educated people could be used to maintain paperwork in NREGA and other Panchayat work that often takes a huge amount of time. Other possibilities abound.
Tweaking the design
Apart from designing accessible works, NREGA needs some tweaking to make it work for disabled persons. Today’s schedule of rates assesses how much work an average able person can do in a day. A new SoR should be developed that reflects diversity in human abilities. Secondly, it is not practical to expect our overworked engineers and block officials to create appropriate designs, do separate measurements of work, and to transition into an accessible system. It would be useful to appoint 2-3 trained social workers in each block who will be mainly in charge of this task. Andhra Pradesh has expanded the guarantee of work to 150 days for families with disabled persons. Instead, it would be meaningful to provide unlimited individual guarantee of work at least to disabled persons. Finally, it would be meaningful to include some skilled work.
These changes are well within our reach, and all it requires is some thought and a lot of care on our part. The fundamental idea of NREGA is to use unused human resources to create assets that we cannot live without; some tweaking of NREGA can help us as a country to tap into the talents and energy of at least 5% of the population towards this end. I guess this is one thing no one can complain about!