100 days of hope – The Hindu. Excerpt

When she spots the camera lens, 72-year-old Rukku flashes a radiant, toothless smile. Her peers quickly catch on the infectious smile, transforming a place of hard labour into something else entirely.

It was at a Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) site that I met Rukku, from Nilgiri district, and a curiously harmonious group of middle-aged and older workers.

“I now don’t need to depend on my relatives for money. I can now buy my grandchildren whatever they want,” Rukku says.

The MGNREGA guarantees a hundred days of wage-employment every year for its members. The unskilled manual work offers livelihood and better financial security in rural areas. Rukku herself earns about Rs. 4,000 a month. She is among the thousands over the age of 65, who work regularly as beneficiaries of the scheme.

Lakshmi, now 65, lives with her husband in Erode. Her children are grown up and live in another city. They do not send her money. Her husband is unwell and too weak for manual labour. She is now the breadwinner of the family.

The scheme also seems to foster a habit of regular savings among the workers.

Under the scheme, these men and women build civic utilities like ponds for ground water recharge, roads, footpaths, children’s playgrounds and burial grounds. The scheme has enabled creation of thousands of farm ponds in the lands of small and marginal farmers and in the farmlands owned by SC/ST communities.

An important feature of implementation of MGNREGS in Tamil Nadu is the active participation of the differently-abled, facilitated by a separate Government order stipulating a special schedule of rates. The tangible benefits have translated into a healthy work atmosphere.

Saravanan, an Assistant Engineer at the site, explains, “Though advanced in age, the workers here are quite able. The camaraderie and a sense of independence from their kin tend to help them get back their health.”

Work is all they’ve ever known. It’s what they do even now, in the evening of their lives. The only difference is that the work now happens amid meals cooked on charcoal fires, the laughter of their grandchildren and the camaraderie of 200 of their peers.