West Champaran (Women's Feature Service) -The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005, may have helped many villages across India end chronic poverty by ensuring 100 days of paid work to every rural household in a year, but in the hamlet of Ratni - located in the border district of West Champaran, Bihar - levels of destitution and illiteracy were so high that many here had only heard of the jobs guarantee programme but did not know how to seek work until mid-2012.
Ratni has a population composed largely of tribals, with the Tharu community being the most dominant. Apart from tribals, a few Muslim and Other Backward Class (OBC) families also reside here. The levels of migration from the village are very high - about 70 per cent - which has a telling impact on the households and severely hampers the education of the children.
Change came to Ratni, which falls under the Gaunaha Panchayat in mid-2012 in the form of the MGNREGA Abhiyan, a campaign initiated by the Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme (PACS) to create awareness about the employment guarantee programme. PACS's partner in the region, the Samagra Shikshan Evam Vikas Sansthan (SSEVS), a local non-government organisation, brought information on MGNREGA to every one of the 150 households of Ratni.
During their initial survey of the region, SSEVS found that no projects under MGNREGA had been taken up in Ratni from the period when it was enacted as a law in 2005. Says Kavita, Project Coordinator, SSEVS, "When we first came to Ratni, many villagers told us that although they had made repeated attempts to get work under MGNREGA, their efforts had not borne fruit because they were unaware about the procedures involved. Most of them did not have the mandatory job card needed to seek work under MGNREGA."
This journey from complete ignorance to awareness began with the formation of a community-based organisation, which was created with the help of SSEVS. The three-member Lok Sangharsh Samiti, with two women on board - their leader is Bahuniya Devi, a panchayat ward member - was constituted to work closely with activists like Kavita and enable villagers to understand their rights and entitlements under the programme.
Over the next few months, the Lok Sangharsh Samiti organised regular meetings in the community during which SSEVS activists provided answers to important questions related to the scheme: What is MGNREGA? How does one access work under it? What are the procedures one has to go through to get a job card? How can communities demand work?
This concerted effort culminated in a public hearing held in Gaunaha Panchayat on January 27, 2013, as part of the social audit process under the PACS-MGNREGA Abhiyan. The people of Ratni participated in the event in large numbers. It was a proud moment for Anju Devi, Sarpanch of Gaunaha Panchayat - which comprises six villages, including Ratni - when villagers confidently got up to share their experiences before the Block Development Officer (BDO), Panchayat Rozgar Sevak, and other officials. They informed them that no MGNREGA projects had ever been sanctioned in Ratni and that most of them did not possess a job card despite their best efforts to get one.
Apart from the people from Ratni, many families from Manguraha - another village in Gaunaha Panchayat - were also present to complain about the non-payment of dues under MGNREGA for work done two years ago.
After everybody spoke, it was time for the officials to commit to addressing the various problems. While the 688 persons who had come from Manguraha village with requests for expediting their pending payments received assurances of immediate action, 70 families from Ratni - in the presence of Sarpanch Anju Devi - got registered for job cards immediately after the hearing. In addition, 97 others were able to put in applications seeking MGNREGA work.
Things have moved in Gaunaha over the last six months. In May 2013, everyone in Manguraha received their MGNREGA dues. Bikal Mahoto, 35, who had worked for 27 days, couldn't believe his eyes when he was finally handed over his hard-earned money. Says he, "I was not expecting this payment. Now I will be able to pay off some of my debts and use the rest of the money to buy some essentials for the family." Adds Jaggu Khojwar, 45, another beneficiary, "At long last, I can get some repairs done in my house. I hope. in the future, we receive payments more promptly."
As for those in Ratni, there is a widespread sense of satisfaction. Thirty-five people have already received their job cards, and all the 97 who had applied for work expect to be employed soon. Rajpal, Former State Manage of PACS in Bihar, is pleased with the progress made. "We have tried to influence the sanctioning of projects based on demand for work. This approach has been successful in Ratni. All those who had applied for jobs have been given gainful employment and a few projects have already begun," he says.
This has also led to the transformation of the village itself. A group of 30 people in Ratni - the majority of whom are women - are busy constructing a pond in the village under MGNREGA. A few other projects have also been sanctioned and work on them is due to begin shortly. But the most exciting news of all is that the state administration has decided to focus on Ratni and make it a model village.
Meanwhile, with assistance from SSEVS, the Lok Sangarsh Samiti has stepped up its efforts to change the face of Ratni. They have made a list of 35 development projects that was subsequently passed in a village meeting held on March 5, 2013. These include the construction of small bridges, wells, roads and trenches for water retention and initiating plantations on private land.
This plan has been shared with Chintan Raj, Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellow appointed in the district as well as District Magistrate (DM), Shridhar Chribolu, who has promised to take it up on a priority basis. As some of the proposed works - including the construction of a bridge that would directly connect Ratni with the block headquarters, Gaunaha - could not be done under MGNREGA, so the DM had them sanctioned under the Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF).
Explains Kavita, "The distance from the village to the block headquarters is 32 kilometres at present. In order to reach it, the villagers of Ratni have to cross the Kudaha river. Once the bridge gets constructed, this distance will be reduced to just seven kilometres."
It has indeed been a long wait for Ratni, but change is now clearly visible. No one is happier about this than Ward Panch and Lok Sangharsh Samiti head, Bahuniya Devi. She signs off by saying, "This is a very good development. We are all working for our own welfare and also getting paid for it! We must seize this opportunity to turn our village into a model one."
(© Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)