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Santhal Tribals Put Khijri On The National Map

By Sonal Kellogg
©Women's Feature Service

Khijri, March 2013 (Women's Feature Service) - It is not often that a village makes news. But sometimes there are moments when the seemingly implausible happens in nooks and corners tucked away within the folds of the country. One such moment was when the predominantly tribal village of Khijri, in Jharkhand, was awarded the President's medal - the Utkrist Rashtrapati Samman - on February 3, MGNREGA Day. As mukhiya Nandlal Hansda stepped forward to receive the award from Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance, it marked the end of an important journey.

How Khijri panchayat in Teesri block of Giridih district, populated largely by Santhals, came to occupy pride of place on the national map makes an interesting story. This nondescript village proved to the country that it was possible to successfully provide employment to a large numbers of workers within a short span of time.

Employment opportunities in a relatively remote village like Khijri are generally hard to come by, and many of the young, able-bodied people here have had to travel to distant places in search of work. In fact, Giridih is known for its high levels of out-migration. It is precisely in such contexts, that a government programme like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) could potentially be a game-changer, which was why the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme chose Khijri as one of the locations to stage its MGNREGA Abhiyan (movement). The idea was to assist the rural poor to take advantage of a flagship government programme, and access work under the MGNREGA.

The campaign was launched in the presence of Diprava Lakra, the district collector of Giridh, on August 23, a few days after Independence Day last year, with over 1,500 people attending the event. On that day itself, 300 new job cards were filled out. Through this campaign, 480 forms demanding work were collected and submitted to the Khijri Panchayat. On the basis of these demands, the Panchayat, in turn, put forward proposals for undertaking various projects, including digging wells, building mud roads and making trenches to hold water for irrigation, under MGNREGA. Shortly thereafter, the villagers, much to their delight, were informed that they would be given the employment they had demanded.

PAC's MGNREGA Abhiyan had a three-fold objective: to create awareness of the scheme; to generate demand for work; and to conduct social audits using the lens of social exclusion in the states of Bihar and Jharkhand, through community mobilisation and with the help of its civil society partners. It aims to generate 100,000 work demands and conduct social audits in over 100 panchayats in both states. The Abhiyan, which is a work in progress, will continue until April 2013, making its presence felt in 25 districts.

While launching the MGNREGA Abhiyan in Khijri, district collector Lakra had some praise for these efforts. "I am happy to share with you that PACS, along with its local partner Naya Sawera Vikas Kendra, is performing a commendable job through the MGNREGA Abhiyan in mobilising people to take part in the rural job guarantee intervention, by demanding work and undertaking social audits and other initiatives," he stated.

Hansda, speaking in his capacity as the head of the Panchayat, noted, "We ensured that all those who worked under MGNREGA were promptly paid as per the work they had undertaken." He said he was hopeful that PACS would continue to work in tandem with his panchayat to spread awareness about MGNREGA. This approach, he believed, would go a long way in preventing the migration of people from this region which resulted in great social stress and the separation of families. He also felt that it would help create valuable infrastructure and assets for the village community, like wells and ponds, which would continue to yield benefits for generations to come.

The challenge really was to motivate the villagers to sign up for the jobs. According to Hansda, everybody in the village initially felt that it would be a self-defeating exercise because MGNREGA payments are notorious for getting delayed. It was only after he made an assurance that he would do his best to ensure that payments would be made on time that the villagers started signing up. Handsa knew that he had to allocate work as per demand generated and make payments promptly. He also knew that he had to ensure that all worksite facilities mandated under the Act are provided - information that he had gained from the advocacy drives of PACS' partner in the area.

Fortunately, Hansda could keep his word. Payments were indeed promptly made. Moreover, all the facilities mandated under the Act, like drinking water, a shed for resting, as well as crèche and medical facilities, were provided on the MGNREGA project sites administered by the Khijri Panchayat.

Today, PACS along with its partner, the Naya Sawera Vikas Kendra, buoyed by the Khijri success, is working hard in other panchayats to ensure that employment is available for the maximum number of days to all those who want to work under MGNREGA.

Hopefully there will be many more stories like that of Khijri village before this unique grassroots campaign comes to an end.

(© Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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