Home / News / India /  An SOS from Bharat’s poorest citizens

MUZAFFARPUR (BIHAR) : "Dena hi padega BDO, dena hi padega

Har haath ko kaam aapko, dena hi padega."

(You have to, oh BDO, you have to

You have to give work to every hand)

On a sunny afternoon on 24 January, a few hundred women—many of them widows and over 60 years old—took over the lawns of the Mushahari block office in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, known as much for its litchi orchards as for undernourished children succumbing to encephalitis.

The women sang at a languid pace, urging the BDO, short for block development officer, for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The voice of lead singer Mandesree Devi, a frail-bodied and greying woman not more than five- feet tall, wafted across the grounds like a lullaby. There was no urgency in her voice or in those who followed her in chorus.

They have done this many times before—at the block and district headquarters, at the state capital in Patna and more than a thousand kilometres away at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. They know the Indian welfare state takes time to wake up from its slumber.

“After a lot of running around, we got 26 days of work this year," said Mandesree. That is far short of the 100 days promised under the central scheme that seeks to shelter vulnerable households from seasonal unemployment and income shocks.

As India grapples with an economic slowdown—gross domestic product (GDP) growth fell to 5% in 2019-20, the slowest in 11 years—leading to fewer jobs, stagnant wages and widespread hunger in the hinterland, the employment guarantee scheme could have been a valuable safety net. Instead, suicides by daily wage earners—the most vulnerable among all occupational groups—doubled to 30,000 in the four years to 2018, according to latest numbers from the home ministry.

poor wages under the rural jobs scheme and a delay in payments have driven men out of the scheme, leaving only women and the old behind
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poor wages under the rural jobs scheme and a delay in payments have driven men out of the scheme, leaving only women and the old behind

According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011, 56% of rural households or an estimated 500 million people constitute India’s landless poor. For them, cracks in existing welfare schemes—from employment guarantee and maternity entitlement to pensions for the old, widowed and disabled—coupled with a dearth of day jobs and rising food prices has meant fewer meals and a diet shorn of nutrition. Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, consumption expenditure of rural families, including on daily staples, fell by a sharp 9%, showed a leaked government report.

There were ample reasons for the Union budget—presented on Saturday— to address this rural misery, and to kick- start demand and consumption. However, it sharply reduced funding for the rural jobs scheme—from 71,000 crore in 2019-20 (Revised Estimate) to 61,500 crore next year (Budget Estimate).

The budget also slashed the food subsidy bill by a staggering 69,000 crore, despite worsening food security situation in villages. In fact, the Economic Survey released on Friday advised the government to reduce coverage under the National Food Security Act, 2013, to the bottom 20% of India’s population, compared to 67% now.

The budgets for social security pensions ( 9,200 crore) and maternity schemes ( 2,500 crore) were kept unchanged. And sadly, even for the Mid Day Meal Scheme for school-going children, the Centre spent 1,100 crore less in 2019-20 than what it had planned; similarly, it spent 2,100 crore less for supplementary nutrition for children under 6 years of age (Anganwadi scheme).

“The poorest seem to be hit in every possible dimension…in the medium to long term we are looking not just at a nutritionally deficient, but a mentally-stunted society," said Rajendran Narayanan, assistant professor at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru. He added that welfare schemes like MGNREGS are seen from a technical perspective (for example, making Aadhaar mandatory and linking it to bank accounts) rather than fixing basic problems like low wages and payment delays.

Living on the edge

Across India, families who managed to find employment under MGNREGS, on an average worked for just 42 days in 2019-20 (till 1 February); the average days of employment provided under the scheme is likely to fall to its lowest in five years. A fund crunch also delayed wage payments; currently, 15 states have no money to implement the scheme in February and March. Mandesree and several other women who protested at the block development office are yet to receive the full payment for the two weeks they worked in December.

Later that day as the women started to leave, I met Dinesh Thakur who despite being blind, walked seven kilometres to the block development office with his wife Sita Devi and their granddaughter Priya. Years back, Sita had worked under the rural jobs scheme but never received the 12,000 due to her. The head of the village panchayat claimed the attendance sheet was stolen from his car. Sita did not think MGNREGS was worth the effort.

A blind Dinesh Thakur and his wife are struggling to run a family on a paltry  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>400 per month disability pension
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A blind Dinesh Thakur and his wife are struggling to run a family on a paltry 400 per month disability pension

But after Thakur’s migrant son stopped sending money last month—his apprenticeship as a carpenter in Mumbai paid poorly—they were worried. The couple walked to the protest venue and back, three hours in all, to find if MGNREGS can help them in these difficult times.

At Balrakisun village in Turki block, about an hour’s ride from the protest site, women were on the edge. A crowd of more than 50 people had gathered late that evening. Low wages under MGNREGS— 177 per day compared to both market wages ( 350) and stipulated minimum wages ( 380)—has driven able- bodied men out of the scheme. In these parts, the only ones interested in MGNREGS are the old, women and widows. Even that is largely driven by a local advocacy group MGNREGA Watch, which helps landless families enrol under the scheme and force government officials and elected panchayats to approve work orders.

Sumantra Devi could barely hold her tears. Her husband is bedridden with tuberculosis. She now takes her 13-year-old son to the brick kiln for a paltry wage of 120 per day—even that reprieve is not available when it rains, leaving her to do odd jobs for a pittance. Sumantra worked for close to a month in the jobs scheme but did not receive the full payment. “I have no money to buy the fruits and eggs the doctor prescribed," she said sitting next to her ailing husband, inside a cold and dimly-lit room.

Fact is, funding for MGNREGS was choked after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it “a living monument of failures" of past governments to reduce poverty. At the beginning of every fiscal year, the jobs scheme kick-starts with pending wage arrears of 10,000 crore and by December the funds are nearly exhausted. “To break this vicious cycle and ensure that MGNREGS wages do not fall far below market rates, funding has to be raised significantly," said Jean Drèze, visiting professor of economics at Ranchi University.

The missing egg

The Anganwadi (childcare centre) at the Ashapur Bhavani village is a sight to behold. Under the centrally-sponsored Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme, Anganwadis were set up to serve nutritious food to children below 6 years of age, and to provide take-home rations for pregnant and lactating mothers. It is also meant to be a playschool for children from poor families.

Monica, 3, has not received the one egg due to her every week at the local Anganwadi
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Monica, 3, has not received the one egg due to her every week at the local Anganwadi

But at noon it wore a deserted look. Dirty jute mats were spread on an open porch; packs of syringes and gas cylinders were scattered in an adjacent room. A few children were dragged from the street after the Anganwadi in-charge Kumari Shobha arrived at 12.30pm. Food was yet to be cooked. For two months now, the facility has not served the one egg due to every child once a week. The weighing scale was broken. Desserts like kheer and halwa served to children were prepared without milk, complained a parent.

The register showed 26 children were enrolled; the day’s attendance was already filled up by the in-charge, even before she reached the centre. An embarrassed Shobha said her monthly salary is due since November last year. She also showed the register which records pregnancies. Twenty-one first pregnancies were recorded over the past year but only three women received a portion of the 5,000 financial assistance under the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana.

In his address to the nation on 31 December 2016, Modi announced that pregnant mothers across India will receive a financial assistance of 6,000. This was mandated under the food security Act but never implemented. However, when the scheme took shape in August 2017, the promised assistance was scaled down to 5,000 per woman and restricted to only the first pregnancy, in a violation of the 2013 Act.

Devkali Devi, 65, who stays alone, can barely survive on a 5kg per month food dole from the government.
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Devkali Devi, 65, who stays alone, can barely survive on a 5kg per month food dole from the government.

A right to information application found that only 24% pregnant women benefitted from the maternity scheme (or received at least one instalment) in 2018-19. Less than 10% pregnancies were covered in Bihar.

Before the food security Act mandated it, there was nothing for pregnant women in the informal sector (while those in the formal sector are entitled to 26 weeks of paid leave), said Reetika Khera, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. “Undernutrition has an inter-generational dimension—weak and poorly fed mothers are likely to give birth to undernourished children. Cash support can help meet their special health and nutrition needs," she added.

Mothers who are in their second or third pregnancy are entitled to a cash assistance of 1,400 for institutional births, under the centrally-funded Janani Suraksha Yojana. In Bihar, that money barely covers the costs of childbirth.

“I spent 2,000 when my child was born," recounted Soni Devi, who now carries her six-month-old child to MGNREGS work sites. The money, Soni said, was spent in paying the village health worker ( 200) who took her to the hospital, the nurse who cleaned the baby after birth ( 500), hospital staff who prepared her papers ( 200) and medicines ( 500), among others.

Princely sum

Thakur, the blind man mentioned earlier in this piece, gets a disability pension of 400 per month under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP) meant for the old, widows and the disabled. But Thakur’s younger brother, who is gradually slipping into lunacy also due to his deteriorating eyesight, did not make the cut.

“I visited the block development office to apply for his pension. But since he can see a little during the day (but nothing after sundown), I was asked to come back when he goes fully blind," said Thakur.

NSAP provides a monthly pension to 33 million individuals but the Centre’s contribution is capped at 200. The amount has remained unchanged since 2006. “This is ridiculous for a scheme which supports the most vulnerable," said Drèze, the economist. “We repeatedly appealed to the finance ministry to raise pensions to at least 500 per month, but the government is more interested in pushing contributory schemes." According to Drèze, it is unfair to expect landless families living from one meal to the next to contribute for a pension 20 years down the line.

No one knows the contours of fairness better than 65-year-old Devkali Devi. Some years back her husband Ganga Paswan, a rickshaw puller, died in a road accident. Ever since, she has been living alone in a thatched outhouse. Devkali’s bed is a pile of hay and her only comfort is a tattered shawl. “How can I survive on 5kg of (subsidized) grains and 400 pension… Is it time for me to go?" she asked.

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