India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), in the last 15 years, has evolved as the world’s largest employer of the last resort. This social protection, specifically designed as a demand-driven automatic employment stabiliser to enable households to cope with livelihood shocks, offers 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to all rural households. The budget for this unique legislative entitlement in a developing country was nearly doubled from US$8 billion in 2019–20 to $15 billion in 2020–21 to partially offset the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. After the first pandemic wave, NREGA provided employment to 76 million households – more than a third of all rural Indian families. Even though women have consistently worked more than half the NREGA person-days annually, in the midst of the pandemic women’s share of employment declined by 2 per cent in 2020–21. However, this may have been a temporary decrease due to the unprecedented mass reverse exodus of urban migrants to their rural villages. Still, state-level analysis in this research highlights the persistent under-utilisation of NREGA by women in the poorer states of the Indo-Gangetic plain. On the other hand, the southern states have higher participation of women due to a combination of factors including better human development outcomes, higher wages, and sometimes better child-care facilities at worksites, which are necessary nationwide remedies. In particular, in the state of Kerala the novel integration of the government-initiated Kudumbashree community self-help women’s groups with NREGA has led to the feminisation of the programme. This convergence provides important insights on the significance of women’s participation in the decentralised management of NREGA to dilute both gender-intensive and gender-exclusive barriers, which could be fruitfully replicated nationwide.
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