Madhya Pradesh's Jhabua (Women's Feature Service) - district is home to a sizeable population of Bhil adivasis even though their large numbers have never given them a strong voice when it came to demanding their basic rights or accessing government schemes. For years, these tribals continued to face rough times, plagued by extreme poverty, illiteracy and the ill-effects of forced seasonal migration.
Until a few months back, a visit to the remote Nad village that falls in the Kalapan Gram Panchayat of Ranapur block in Jhabua district would have clearly reflected this unfortunate reality. Today, however, it is an altogether different scenario. People here now know their rights and entitlements, they no longer have to move out for months on end in search of work, and their children have a more stable life.
How did they manage this seemingly impossible feat? Well, this success story starts around the time when the Adivasi Chetna Shikshan Seva Samiti (ACSSS), a local civil society organisation, decided to launch a campaign to raise awareness about the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in the region in partnership with the Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme (PACS).
Nad is certainly not your average idyllic rural hamlet - one has to cross a mountain and a river to access the single mud track that leads to the village. Due to the severe lack of livelihood opportunities, migration was a part of 'normal' life. Reveals Benedict Damor, Secretary, ACSSS, "It was common for entire families to move out with bag and baggage and go to cities in Rajasthan and Gujarat for six months at a stretch. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that every year around 70 per cent of the village would migrate for work."
Of course, while it was evident that migration had given this community the means to earn money - on which they survived for the remaining six months - it had also taken away a great deal from them. Their children were deprived of secure home, illiteracy was rampant and health indicators were extremely poor. Malnutrition levels were high, and consequently the maternal and child mortality rates. The lack of information meant that they were unable to access healthcare schemes such as Janani Suraksha Yogana (JSY) and Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Activists of ACSSS, therefore, felt that if these people were empowered to seek employment in the vicinity of their village, it could potentially be a transformative process for them. The implementation of the MGNREGA could turn things around - after all, the employment guarantee legislation had been envisioned as a strategy to end out-migration from rural areas by providing deprived households with 100 days of work.
Trouble was that even though these people had heard of this flagship government initiative, they had no idea of how to obtain work under it and, therefore, had simply stayed away from work sites. So, as part of their campaign, the first thing the ACSSS activists did was to organise regular community level meetings where the tribals were informed about their rights under the Act. This was followed by the setting up of a women's Self-Help Group (SHG), the Dashama Mahila Swam Sanstha Samuh. Recalls Damor, "We gave them all the necessary information regarding MGNREGA and explained to them that they had every right to demand work. Moreover, in case work was not given they could ask for an unemployment allowance."
Once they understood this, the tribals formed a group and approached their Kalapan Gram Panchayat for work - 17 women and 15 men asked for 45 days of work on December 4, 2012. When they were told that there was none available at the time, they confidently demanded their unemployment allowance. On being informed that this sum could only be sanctioned from the Block Panchayat office, 20 villagers - including women from the SHG - undertook the arduous journey to Ranapur on January 4, 2013, to put in an application for the allowance. Unfortunately, although the Block Officer accepted their claim, he refused to give them an acceptance receipt and even prevented other officers from giving them one.
It was then that the villagers decided to directly approach the district collector, Jayshree Kiyawat. With placards in hand, they reached the collectorate office at Jhabua and raised slogans demanding work under MGNREGA or the payment of the unemployment allowance. Even the local press was invited to cover the demonstration and add to the pressure. Their effort had the desired result as the collector not only heard their complaint but promised prompt action.
Such was the power of their collective intervention that the very next day government officials from Ranapur block visited Nad to survey the area. Within 24 hours, the construction of eight wells was sanctioned under the MGNREGA at an estimated cost of Rs 7 lakh.
Work on the wells took off from February 10, 2013 onwards and workers have been paid regularly on a weekly basis. According to Damor, "This victory was possible because the villagers remained united and raised their voice collectively, despite threats and hurdles from various quarters."
Significantly, the overjoyed villagers have discovered the influence they can exert on officials while demanding their rights under MGNREGA provisions and armed with the Right to Information Act. They are now looking forward to further developing Nad by securing their entitlements under various other government schemes as well.
Nad is not the first village to have witnessed a positive multiplier effect of this kind. This trend has, in fact, been documented in different scholarly works that have investigated the impact of work done under MGNREGA on agriculture productivity and the income of the farming community.
One study, an independent evaluation of MGNREGA, jointly conducted by Institute of Forest Management, Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) and Institute of Social Science Research (ISSR) and released in 2012, on small and marginal farmers in Madhya Pradesh has revealed that due to projects taken up on individual land there was an increase of around 15 per cent in the cultivated area of the sample households. This also increased their food security - in fact, the availability of food went up from six months to nine months (Source: MGNREGA Sameeksha 2006-12). Indeed, the MGNREGA Sameeksha, an anthology of research studies on the scheme, also states that "at the national level, the share of SCs and STs in the work provided under MGNREGA has been high at 40-50 per cent across each of the years of the scheme's implementation".
From an eclipsed existence, fraught with misfortune, penury and ill health, the people of Nad have got a new lease of life - and MGNREGA has proved to be the empowering factor.
(© Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)