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Empowerment

Songs of hope

NANDINI NAYAK

In Tapi, Madhya Pradesh, the NREGA has made a material difference to the quality of life. Because the people believe it is their law and they are determined to make it work.

Photos: Faizan Javed, Prakhar Dixit

Positive impact: At work on a road construction project in Pati Block.

Pati Block in Badwani District (southwest Madhya Pradesh) is a place where the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) inspires hope rather than indifference. Many rural labourers in Pati were part of the struggle to get the Act passed, and today they proudly say, “rozgaar garantee amra kanoon che” (this is our legislation, we got it enacted and we will make it work). A recent survey of NREGA sheds further light on the value of the Act as a tool of empowerment.

This survey was undertaken by the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute (Allahabad University) in May-June 2008. It covered 10 districts, spread over six States in the “Hindi belt” (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). In each district, 10 Gram Panchayats (five each in two different blocks) were selected for investigation, starting with detailed inspection of an NREGA worksite. An important focal point in this survey was a household survey, comprising interviews with NREGA workers employed at these worksites. The main objective of the household survey was to assess the impact of NREGA on people’s lives as well as their subjective perceptions of this programme.

Aware of rights

In Badwani, the survey was conducted in Pati and Rajpur blocks. The Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS) has been working in Pati block for several years. Moreover, since NREGA came into force there in 2006, members of the Sangathan have come together to demand the effective implementation of the Act — to ensure that job cards are issued, that written applications for work are accepted by the local administration, and that the minimum wage is paid as per law.

In simple terms, Pati block in Badwani is a place far from the public imagination and from common narratives about the implementation of the NREGA. In remote tribal villages, there is a sense of ownership and pride in the law, proclaimed by women and men alike. In fact women who don’t have NREGA “job cards” in their own names now say they want a full 100 days of work for themselves, instead of having to share this quota with other household members listed on the joint job card. They have seen the Act work and want to organise to demand individual job cards and a source of income independent of the rest of their household. This illustrates not only their high awareness of the provisions of the Act, but also their confidence in the power of collective action.

The passion with which the NREGA is spoken of by Sangathan members also shines through in the survey results. Of the workers interviewed in Pati block, nearly half (47 per cent) stated that their household got 100 days of work in the last financial year. On average, they had obtained as many as 85 days of work per household in the 12 months preceding the survey. The corresponding figure for the entire sample was 43 days, with only 14 per cent of the respondents stating that their household had worked for a full 100 days in the preceding 12 months. The activation of NREGA on a massive scale is one of the main achievements of the Sangathan.

Vital benefit

The NREGA has brought varied benefits to workers’ lives. The most important has been a reduction in the need to migrate for work. Under the programme, work can be availed at the minimum wage in their own villages with which they can buy food, seed and clothes. Har Sinh Jamre from Savariyapani village says the NREGA has helped double the crop on his small field. How has this happened? He says it is because he was able to save some money and buy seed and fertilizer right when he needed it rather than waiting till he could afford it, which might have been several weeks too late. Also, everyone is hopeful of benefits to their lands with talaab (pond), med bandi and contour bunding works being implemented under the NREGA. These villages were once in the middle of thick forests, and it is hoped that the dry, bald hills of Pati will come alive again with soil conservation works.

There are interesting positive spill-over effects of the work of the Sangathan in the Pati area. According to the secretary of the Ubadagarh Panchayat, in Pati Block, he has received written work applications not just from JADS members but also from others in the village, who do not identify themselves as Sangathan members. They have observed the benefits of putting in written applications for work and want to be able to access NREGA work themselves too. These demonstration effects are likely to spread over time, and extend the reach of the Sangathan’s work well beyond its own members.

Not all rosy

Photo: Tanushree Bhasin

The right to answers: Activists of JADS at a meeting in Pati, Badwani.

Encouraging as the situation may be, the Sangathan’s struggle for better implementation of the NREGA continues. After two years of concerted efforts, the Sangathan is concerned that works that are being opened under the NREGA are not in keeping with the list of works demanded by gram sabhas. In the recent past there have also been significant delays in wage payments. At a dharna in Badwani on May 26, 2008, more than a thousand members of the Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan came to Badwani city from villages in Pati block. They gathered at the mandi just outside Badwani, and sitting in a room in the city, I could hear slogans in the distance as they walked towards Badwani, repeating “sawaal le kar aaye hain, jawaab le kar jayenge” (we have come with questions, we will return with answers). They marched to ask questions of the district administration, to get answers, and to assert their right — to the “employment guarantee”. Sureshwar Singh, CEO of the Zila Panchayat in Badwani, was invited to address the gathering. To his credit, he obliged, stood in the middle of those gathered and answered questions (many others in his position, for reasons inexplicable, tend to be intimidated or hostile). Sureshwar Singh was told that road works and wells for individual beneficiary lands are being opened under the NREGA where the Gram Sabha has asked for village ponds. “Why are works not being opened in order of priority given by the Gram Sabha? What about delays in wage payments?” Singh says money has not been received from the Central Government. The gathering wants better answers than this. “Why is money equally distributed amongst Panchayats — even in places where no works have been opened and no wages are due? You should direct available money to Panchayats where wages are due.” About problems in individual Gram Panchayats, Sureshwar Singh encourages those gathered to submit written applications to the Janpad (Block) Panchayat CEO. He says he will convene meetings on a regular basis to address issues raised. As he leaves, he is given a gyapan (memorandum), lest questions raised verbally be forgotten.

Struggles won

These struggles are not new to the Sangathan. In 2006, when work under the NREGA was not provided in response to written work applications, people converged in Badwani to demand that an unemployment allowance be paid as per the provisions of the Act. No work and no unemployment allowance would have meant migration for many. The district administration was as determined to not pay the unemployment allowance as the Sangathan members were determined to get it. The struggle for the unemployment allowance lasted from June to October 2006 and included an eight-day long dharna in front of the Collectorate by the Sangathan, followed by further delays by the administration. The unemployment allowance was finally paid in November 2006, to more than 1,500 applicants from eight Gram Panchayats. This was in fact the first time the unemployment allowance was paid anywhere in the country under NREGA.

In Sangathan meetings, there is a song of hope you will always hear. “Rozgar guarantee ke chalu karenya amri ladai chalu che; Chaalu che bhai chalu che, amri ladai chalu che.” (Our struggle continues, to make the rozgar guarantee work...). It is sung with conviction because of the importance of the law in their lives and because of the belief that better days lie ahead.

Nandini Nayak is a research scholar associated with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

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