Jhansi (Bundelkhand), Uttar Pradesh: Nahrani, a 38-year-old in Lalitpur, a village 30km from Jhansi, has an all-too-familiar tale to tell: a recently deceased husband; the lack of a ration card which promises access to free or inexpensive food; and a village without water, power, schools or health centres.
Not one child from the 50-odd families in this village goes to school. The menfolk are perennially drifting, looking for jobs. And no one has heard of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Merely 15km from Lalitpur, another village in Bundelkhand, Ghisoli, presents a study in contrast.
All children from the 400-odd families in this village go to school, and some even nurse dreams of college. The village itself looks clean and prosperous. Behind this success are 26 self-help groups, each with 13 members, set up by local women with help from a non-governmental organization (NGO). And everyone at Ghisoli has heard of MGNREGA—in fact, jobs provided by the scheme help the women set aside money for the self-help groups, which have together set aside a little over Rs1 lakh in a local bank.
That’s a significant achievement for women, especially in Bundelkhand.
Click here to view as slideshow about the NREGA in Bundelkhand
Spanning seven districts in Uttar Pradesh and six in Madhya Pradesh, this was once among the most prosperous regions in the country, but today it is one of the most backward. Prolonged drought, low industrial growth, rampant poverty and the apathy of the administration have forced people to migrate. Eight out of every 10 men in the region are out working or searching for work elsewhere. The women, despite running households in the absence of men, are not the dominant sex in this region where communities are still structured along feudal lines and caste, with lower-caste women at the bottom.
In many ways, this is just the kind of environment where MGNREGS was supposed to make a difference. It has, in the rare village such as Ghisoli, but across Bundelkhand the story of the populist job guarantee scheme is one of corruption and lack of awareness.
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party may have rubbished Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s allegations that the state government isn’t properly utilizing MGNREGS funds, but most villagers in Jhansi district do admit that there has been rampant corruption in the implementation of the scheme.
“MGNREGA is a programme out of which the poor in every part of the country get benefits. But in this state, the system is made in such a way that nobody gets the advantages,” says Amit Tripathy, a local social activist.
Tripathy is convinced there is a larger motive behind this.
“The officials and the people who matter think that proper implementation of such programmes would make the people strong enough to weaken them,” he says.
Tripathy’s claim is supported by villagers and anecdotal evidence.
It is opposed by data.
In Jhansi district (population is 1.9 million), 133,497 job cards under the job guarantee scheme have been distributed and 86,178 people have already benefited, according to the latest data in the ministry of rural development. Of the total of Rs142.14 crore allotted to the scheme in the district, Rs105.92 has been spent, translating into a 75% utilization, better than the national average of 71% for the 619 districts where the scheme has been implemented.
Yet, nothing is visible on the ground.
Villagers complain that powerful and influential village headmen, in connivance with the officials, shoo them away when approach for work under the scheme. The jobs often go to cronies of the headmen, they say. And when the rare job is proffered to someone who really needs it, the headmen invariably cheat them out of the money that is their due, the villagers allege. Even the job cards aren’t registered in their names, they say. And the money, for those lucky ones who manage to land some work, always comes late.
“They (panchayat council members) chase us away with sticks when we go to them (asking) for work. They will keep our cards and provide jobs to their people. They do not give women jobs,” says Biniya, who runs a small paan stall in Bagora village in Babina block. She doesn’t see any point in complaining.
“If we have to complain against these people, we will have to go to Jhansi, and that too several times. We will have to spend Rs100 each every time. What’s the point,” adds a visibly frustrated Biniya.
Baghora, in many ways, is a mirror image of Lalitpur. The roads are bad. Most houses don’t have power and water connections. “At the school we have, teachers come once in a week. Our children do not get the mid-day meal because those who run the school share it among themselves,” complains Ramesh, another villager.
The state government official in charge of MGNREGS in the village, Mahesh Shukla refutes all charges regarding the scheme. It works perfectly, he says and adds, “In 2009-10, we gave Rs7.9 lakh for labour and Rs7 lakh for materials. Around 350 job cards were distributed in this village and 175 people have already worked under the scheme.”
The real problem facing the scheme, Shukla adds, is entirely different. “Actually, there is dearth of labourers,” he says.
But he does concede that payments are delayed.
The real problem in many parts of Bundelkhand would appear to be lack of awareness. In Mota, another village in the region, people have not heard about any government schemes for people below the poverty line; and no villager has a ration card or job card. The only card most people possess is a voter identity card; politicians want people to vote. So, what explains Ghisoli’s success?
An exception to the rule
At one level, the success of the scheme and its impact on Ghisoli point to the difference self-help groups can make to the job guarantee scheme.
At another, it points to the difference political intervention by a popular leader can make.
In Ghisoli’s case, that leader is Rahul Gandhi. The son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and general secretary of the party, he visited Ghisoli in 2008. The village wasn’t very different from many others in the region then, and villagers complained to him about the non-implementation of MGNREGS.
Soon after, the Rajiv Gandhi Mahila Vikas Pariyojna (RGMVP), an NGO that works to create self-help groups entered the region. RGMVP is headquartered in Rae Bareli, the pocket borough of the Gandhi family whose representative in the Lok Sabha is Sonia Gandhi.
RGMVP’s volunteers worked with the village women, even taking some to Andhra Pradesh, a state that has been transformed by the success of self-help groups. “We found women were running dhabas there,” says Jayanti, a villager, adding that this led to the natural question: Why can’t we?
The self-help groups also helped the women ask for and get work under MGNREGS. “We were used to be thrown out by the village council people whenever we approached them for work. We were shy and reluctant to push ourselves. But now we are aware of our rights and we will fight for it,” says Vimla, a villager.
The women started setting aside Rs50 a month as their contribution to their respective self-help group. Today, the self-help groups run a bank of foodgrain; the bank has a quintal or 100kg, and 20kg from this can be loaned to the needy when required. The self-help groups can also lend up to Rs10,000. The women have managed to convince the police to shut down wine shops in the village, and are now planning ahead. “We have been promised (by RGMVP) that our children will be given special education in English and computers next year,” says Vimla.
Other NGOs, working in other villages in the region, have made a similar difference—empowering women and improving lives.
In Chapra village, Magleshwar Yadav, a teacher in the Chapra girls primary school, says that not a single student had dropped out in the past two years—this, in a region where most girl students drop out of school.
And no one from the village has gone out seeking jobs, says Sumalata, another villager.
Yet, such villages are few. At least 30-40% of people in the region still migrate in search of jobs, says Manish Jain of Jagruti Nehru Yuva Mandal, an NGO.
That’s evident in Mota village, which seems populated by old men and women. And in Nayibanti, another village in Bundelkhand, 100 families migrated recently in search of jobs.
“This village is just 2km from the Babina block headquarters,” says Shahid, a social activist. “If officials can’t implement the job guarantee scheme there, one can imagine the plight of faraway villages.”
This is the first of a five-part MGNREGA status report.
Next: The progress of the scheme in Dantewada, ground zero of India’s fight against Naxalites.