‘Jobs, water crisis, NREGA wages’: What’s on the mind of Rajasthan’s tribal women voters?

The tribal districts of Banswara and Dungarpur have one of the highest female workforce participation and voter turnout in the state.

In Banswara, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the Congress manifesto talks about taking stock of “the gold of mothers and sisters” and distributing it among “infiltrators”. But the Congress has denied his claims, called his remarks “hate speech”, and added that the party’s manifesto only talks about social justice. 

While a war of words ensues, what are the real issues on the ground for women in Rajasthan? Newslaundry spoke to voters in Banswara and Dungarpur.

Suryakantha, 18, a first-time voter, will keep rozgaar, or employment, in mind when Rajasthan’s backward tribal district of Banswara, along with 88 other constituencies, votes in the second phase of the Lok Sabha elections on April 26.

The first-year BA student’s parents haul bricks in Gujarat, while she takes care of her two siblings and a small piece of agricultural land, singularly responsible for walking long distances to fetch water. But Suryakantha’s family is only one of the many facing this predicament. 

Without adequate employment opportunities in Banswara and its neighbouring Dungarpur, locals – including thousands of women – are forced to migrate to Gujarat for work. The two districts record some of the highest rates of female workforce participation in the state. Several of them asked Newslaundry why the government isn’t setting up industries here. 

Since governments depend on their high voter turn-out, the women asserted that they matter in the ongoing elections.

But making their votes count was a long drawn-out quest. 

In 1951-52, around 28 lakh women voters registered themselves by their relationship with their patriarch, and not by their names. In 1962, the gender gap was huge at 16.7 percentage points. Cut to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, female voter turnout of 67.18 percent, for the first time, exceeded that of male voters at 67.02 percent. The trend is likely to continue with more than 47.2 crore women registered as voters in the current Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP and Congress manifestos, cognizant of this data, tried to woo women voters by promising women-centric schemes – from the BJP’s vow to expand the Lakhpati Didi scheme and Congress’s Rs 1 lakh in cash for each poor family per year.

On April 15, about 50 first time voters – most of them women – gathered at Swami Mama Baleshwar Dayal Govt PG College in Banswara’s Kushalgarh tehsil for a poll awareness campaign. Members of civil society groups and college representatives asked the students to “make the right choice”, also emphasising on the greater role for women in elections.

Similar to Suryakantha, many of these voters emphasised on the need for skill development centres and employment opportunities. 

Her senior Kopila Yadav, whose parents also work in Gujarat, leaving her two younger siblings in her care, said, “There should be skill development training centres so that women could earn their livelihood here.”

Unemployment is the most pressing concern for at least 27 percent of the electorate, as per the pre-poll Lokniti-CSDS survey. This is followed by price rise at 23 percent, and development at 13 percent. 

The issue is especially dire among women, who account for less than 10 percent of total employment. The female unemployment rate dropped to a 16-month low of 11 percent in January this year from 14.9 percent in December last year, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

Newslaundry also spoke to first-time women voters, NREGA workers and civil society groups in Banswara and Dungarpur to understand what’s on women voters’ minds.

Increase in NREGA wages, paper leaks 

At least 50 women NREGA workers at Dungarpur’s Malmatha village, about 150 km from Kushalgarh College, have been demanding an increase in their daily wage from Rs 255 to Rs 600.

Radha Devi, who is in her 50s, pointed out the disparity in wages. “A senior teacher works for four hours and gets paid between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh. A woman who works as a labourer gets only Rs 200. What can she do? How would she get his son married, run the household? Our wage should be at least Rs 600. Pension should be increased.”

She also noted that students with BEd degrees were jobless. “The government keeps saying ‘we will give jobs and get your children educated’.’ What’s the point of education when our children are going to be jobless and underpaid?” 

One of Devi’s nephews, Praveen Bharada, 36, had been preparing for government teachers’ jobs for the past six years. He attended a coaching institute in Udaipur for some time but left as he ran out of money. His wife Priyanka Katara, who is also pursuing her BEd, said he now works as a mason in Gujarat. 

“One of the teachers’ examination papers was leaked while in another he could not clear as he can’t afford to devote his time to studies. How can we with coaching of only one month compete with students from urban areas?” Priyanka asked.

A senior teacher works for four hours and gets paid between Rs 75,000 and Rs 1 lakh. A woman who works as a labourer gets only Rs 200. What can she do? How would she get his son married, run the household? Our wage should be at least Rs 600. Pension should be increased.

Radha Devi, a NREGA worker in Dungarpur

A BEd student, Teena, also said she is tired of paper leaks. “I am unemployed even after BEd. Papers get leaked. I am tired of preparing for government jobs. I was in Udaipur and Jaipur for exam preparation. I had to return because I ran out of money.”  As per the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 62 percent  in India believe it is “difficult” to land a job.   In Kushalgarh, a collective of 10 women from the unorganised sector wanted jobs in their district. When asked to rate the Narendra Modi government on a scale of 1-10, none gave it more than 4. “If factories are set up in this bloc, we can work here. The wages should be increased so that young women don’t have to go to Gujarat. Even if we don’t migrate, what are we going to eat here?” said Anita Masar, who works with the Pravasi Mahila Mazdoor Sangh. Other women in Malmatha raised concerns about safety, especially enroute to Gujarat. They alleged kidnapping and molestation at work sites are common.

Woman at a skill training centre in Banswara's Kushalgarh
Woman at a skill training centre in Banswara's Kushalgarh

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