Dantewada, Chhattisgarh: Madvi Madka owns 4ha of land in Chingavaram in the Sukum block in central India. The district in which the block is located has become infamous after 6 April, killing of 76 policemen by the Maoists. This is the ground zero of the war between the Indian state and the Maoists, and Madka, who owns 4ha of land—often left fallow because there wasn’t enough water for irrigation—here used to make ends meet by travelling to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and picking chillies during the harvest season.
That changed with the introduction of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Field workers in charge of implementing the job guarantee programme in the Naxal-infested region expanded the scope of projects that fell under the scheme to ponds on private lands—a move targeted at generating goodwill. Madka was one of the beneficiaries and a small pond was constructed on his land.
The pond and a little more help from field workers have changed Madka’s life. He now has a vegetable garden, a fish pond, and owns some goats and chicken. Madka has become a role model for other tribals; “many people in the area have approached us for ponds”, says Dinesh Chandel, assistant project officer of MGNREGS in Dantewada district.
The success of such initiatives lends credence to the local administration’s belief that social development, more than mere counter-insurgency, can dent the Maoists hold over tribals. It would appear that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s flagship programme, MGNREGS is helping the administration regain the trust of tribals. This isn’t the intended objective of the scheme, but here in Dantewada, anything that can help ideologically counter the Maoists is welcome.
A ray of hope
MGNREGS plays a very basic role in Dantewada, says Prasanna R., district collector, Bijapur. “It has helped the locals to develop confidence in the administration. It is easy us for to take other schemes to them,” he adds. Bijapur is one of the districts worst affected by Maoist insurgency.
Recognizing the benefits of the scheme, the state is working towards creating infrastructure that can help MGNREGS projects get off the ground.
Some tribals view the official measures favourably. Chetra Atami, a tribal in Kasoli, says: “We need more bridges and check dams so that we can do more farming in the land. We are happy that we get work when we want. The administration does not deny us funds at all.”
“We are happy that we can work under the scheme. It provides us a steady income and we do not have to go searching for work off season,” adds Bhimsen, a resident in the Kasoli camp, where around 200 families have been shifted from their villages in the forest after being forced to leave homes by the Naxals.
Empowering locals: (From top) Villagers of Kasoli working on a project under the rural employment guarantee programme; a recently constructed check dam in Badepaneda village in Geedam block; a boy in Dantewada district collecting mahua flowers which are used to produce an alcoholic drink. Pradeep Gaur / Mint
Yet, operating in a region where the Maoists call the shots in most areas comes with its own set of problems.
It is routine for government officials to be kidnapped and held hostage. Many districts do not have enough banks and post offices. For example, Dantewada (17,634 sq. km area and around 770,000 population) has 45 banks and 130 post offices in its 403 villages, out of which almost 50% are not functional.
“We do have problems in meeting the target, especially in the interiors. Payment is another area of trouble, with not many post offices or banks to transfer the money. We also face a human resource crunch,” says Alex Menon, chief executive officer, zilla panchayat (district council), Bijapur.
“With one village getting at least (a) Rs10 lakh project, many post offices do not have the staff to handle it nor are they comfortable in handling the money,” adds Chandel.
So far the district administration has opened 37,280 bank accounts and 84,052 post office accounts for the villagers, while 13,433 families have been distributed job cards. At least 2,248 projects have already been cleared; and of the Rs61.78 crore approved, Rs26.55 crore has been spent.
It isn’t always easy to interest tribals in the projects, says Chandel. Some of them prefer to harvest mahua flowers (which is distilled to make a liquor called Mahua) and tendu leaves (a major non-timber forest produce used for rolling beedis), instead. However, with the benefits of some MGNREGS projects becoming evident, the administration hopes there will be more interest.
Benefits for all
One such project is the check dam in Badepaneda village in Geedam block. Built at a cost of Rs47 lakh (it took three years and 5,350 man hours), this can store water for at least eight villages. “Earlier, we used to face water shortage in summer, right from the month of February. With this check dam, we will not have any water problem throughout the year. Our wells (in the nearby areas) are not dry; we can bathe lavishly and irrigate our farms too,” says Devashish, a villager.
According to M. Mahapatra, block medical officer, Community Health Centre in Behramgarh, Bijapur, health awareness among the villagers has improved too. While there may be no correlation between this and the job guarantee scheme, MGNREGS does help the administration reach out to people and may help it familiarize them with other state-sponsored schemes and benefits. Mahapatra attends to at least 13-14 deliveries in a month and the laboratory attached to the centre conducts 400-500 blood tests in the same period. “Vaccinations have become more regular also,” he said.
The job guarantee scheme has also helped local officials reach out to areas where they did not have a presence. Like Bijapur zilla panchayat, where most of the 36 villages were inaccessible till recently.
An important benefit, according to Menon and Prasanna, is that through MGNREGS the administration could regain at least 10% of the land from the Naxals in a year. “Reddy village (20km from the district headquarters) is the perfect example for rehabilitation. It was unreachable, schools and health centres had been blasted by the Naxals. Now the villagers have gone back from the camps. They have two schools and health centres there,” Menon said.
Still, in this part of the country, MGNREGS is far from an unqualified success. In Matwara village, 357 job cards were distributed, but only 150 people have worked and earned wages. As a result, the ambit of the scheme has not yet expanded from creating small ponds and approach roads.
While it is in the interests of the local administration to implement the job guarantee scheme, the Maoists, villagers claim, themselves do not seem opposed to it—as long as a project doesn’t pose a threat to them.
“In some places, they ensure that the villagers get the ensured wage and in some other places, they themselves supervise the construction of roads. But they do oppose it when we try to construct roads to get access to their heartlands,” says an MGNREGS field worker in Bijapur district.
This is the second of a five-part MGNREGA status report.
Next: How the scheme is resulting in the enlisting of women in the workforce in Rajasthan and catalysing social change.