By Drishti Agarwal, Family Empowerment Programme
“We have three basic demands for our village; water, ration and employment”, says the women, in Barwada village of Gogunda block, Udaipur district, as they prepared a demand charter to present to their M.P candidates. Women from the Ujala Sangathan; the local workers’ collective in Southern Rajasthan, met in their panchayats, to discuss their problems and what is it that they collectively want to ask from the upcoming government.
In a time when a plethora of promises are being made by both the BJP and the Congress government, SC and Tribal women from the six blocks of Southern Rajasthan, who depend on manual labour as their major source of income, have three basic demands from the upcoming government; water, food and employment. These women access work either through the local contractors and private work sites or through the government’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGs). This comprehensive yet simple portrayal of their problems shows that a new set of schemes or a path-breaking innovation is not what rural India is looking for but the better implementation of existing schemes and policies.
In this phase of exchanging electoral power, Adivasi women from rural Rajasthan are asking pertinent questions about what has been delivered by the previous government, which caste and class have been at the forefront of receiving these benefits and what yet remains to be done. Their basic demand is to revamp the provisions that favour a few ‘rural elites’ and replace it with a more accessible public provisioning system.
Putting up a fight
In Chitravas, Sayra block of Udaipur district, Pavni Garasiya says, she spends an average of 7 hours collecting water for her family. Her hamlet has two hand pumps, but both of them are concentrated near the ward panch’s house (who is from the same caste as hers) and is very far from the 15 garasiya (ST) households that are situated on a hill. She and her samooh members have been asking the panchayat to make one hand pump near their fala (hamlet) for one year now, but there is no response. At most, they are told that there is a severe water crisis in the village and nothing can be done. Women from Pavni bai’s fala looks through this tactic as they argue that why does the Ward Panch or the upper caste families living near the panchayat samiti has a hand pump and not them. Even after repeated attempts, Pavni bai and her samooh have not received any support from the panchayat. In this case, the administration’s neglect towards arranging water in the ST hamlets reiterates the age-old practice of women fetching water and it further normalizes it. It is also a reflection of how the caste and class structure has been maintained by the administration by favouring a few.
In a recent report published by Oxfam, women’s unpaid labour (caring for children and home) comprises 3% of the national GDP, but remains largely unrecognized and undermined. Pavni bai’s case can be analyzed in this light, where 7 hours of a rural woman’s day is being spent on fetching water for the whole family. This also resonates with Jayati Gosh’s findings in her PhD thesis on Women’s work in India; absence of basic amenities in the rural households is an important factor for an increase in women’s unpaid work. Thus, neglect towards the basic public provisioning system reinforces the normality around women’s unpaid work and the importance being given to policies that have a direct implication on women’s time and labour.
It is not just the poor condition of public provisioning that the Ujala samooh women are raising their voice against but they are also commenting on the unfair payment delivery system under the public works scheme and demand for its removal.
Currently, women from Pavni bai’s Hamlet takes a narrow rocky terrain to transport water from the nearby panchayat. All the 25 women from Pavni bai’s hamlet were working on levelling the same narrow rocky path, with nothing but spades. The group has been working since past 15 days from 6 a.m to 2 p.m at Rupees 120 a day, in the sweltering temperatures of April. “There is no provision of ‘Napti’. The mate asks us to take turns in building the road. Everyone receives the same amount irrespective of the labour we put or the time we spend”.
Pavni bai’s struggle in Sayra resonates with the Sangathan women in Bedawal, Salumbar block. The group met 10 days before the Rajasthan Lok Sabha elections, to discuss their burning demands. Among many things, such as a functional primary school, Aanganwadi, Phulwari, NREGA shines as one of the most important demand.
Women criticized the ‘Napti’ system under NREGA because of its nature. They argued that such a system of measurement is not appropriate for the terrain they live in. “It is not just the measurement of the road that you work on that should count but the intensity of labour that is required to work on that rocky path”, says Bhuri bai, Sangathan member from Bedawal, Salumbar.
The samooh further criticizes the Napti system as it calls for more surveillance on part of the women. The samooh collectively ask that in none of the government job there is such a system of surveillance for the employees, so why do the Adivasi women have to be subjected to it, (According to a report published in the Indian Express, women account for 65% of the NREGA workforce in Rajasthan) especially when it is maintained by a rather corrupt NREGA mate and not by the people themselves. They look at the system as demeaning and ask for doing away with the system. The group raises serious questions about the dignity of the workers under NREGA and how not paying them even a minimum wage yet maintaining a high degree of surveillance, sets an example for distorted employment.
Challenging the popular understanding around NREGA being only about digging trenches, they asserted that the scheme helps them build useful infrastructure in the village. This was also accompanied by a demand for a minimum wage for the workers.
Doli bai, another leader, expresses her dissatisfaction with the public works scheme. She compares the NREGA work site with that of a private work site, which in her opinion is far better as they receive 200 rupees there, while NREGA only fetches them 150 rupees per day. “We also get to work under shade in the local work site, while in NREGA we work in the biting heat since 6 in the morning. Who would like to work in such a condition?” In the demand charter prepared by their group, their prime demand was to do away with the ‘Napti’ system, provision of shade, a crèche and the implementation of a minimum wage in NREGA.
Women as a voter, as a citizen
Ramu bai, from Bhabhrana, Salumbar block, who has been fighting for the ration in her village since 2016. She and other people from her village sit on a dharna every year as the ration dealer makes false entries in their ration cards and deny them their due. She does not silently accept the feeble excuses given by the ration dealer but keeps questioning him for the irregular quantity. She says that unless everyone in her village will receive the full quantity of ration, she will not sit silently. (Here is a glimpse of Ramu bai sharing her experience of fighting the village system) She beautifully explains the process she would follow if necessary. She says, “if the ration dealer refuses to listen, they will go to the Sarpanch. They elect the Sarpanch by giving their votes.” She asks, “If we women, do not give our votes, how will he become the Sarpanch?” There are 100 other women like Ramu bai who have been putting up a fight; some successful, some consistent, against the corrupt panchayat members. However, with increased knowledge about their rights and their power to the vote, the Ujala Sangathan women are better able to confront the Panchayat officials.
When the question of ration was posed to the Ujala Sangathan, they said that the given quantity is not enough. The mandated quantity of 5 kgs of wheat per person in Rajasthan is not enough as one person consumes at least 40 kgs in a month. Moreover, in a state like Rajasthan wheat alone cannot sustain people’s nutrition. In a study undertaken by Aajeevika Bureau, on Child Malnutrition in Rajasthan, it was found that out of those surveyed, over half of the mothers were found malnourished and about one-third of the tribal children were severely so. The study finds that the limited scope of the PDS and its poor implementation acts as a significant cause for this. Women’s voices and demands to increase the scope of the PDS to include pulses, oil and sugar in the ration basket resonates with the suggestions made in the literature.
As the whole nation witnessed a frenzy; fueled by WhatsApp forwards and empty yet catchy sloganeering, around Lok Sabha elections being only about one personality, the countryside was also not unaffected by this fever pitch enthusiasm. To echo the mainstream media and the countless WhatsApp forwards, many women said that the elections were Modi’s elections and that the policies introduced (repacked) by him were very useful.
However, at the same time, a place like a Ujala Samooh became a reflective place for people to think and critique, where one person keeps a check on what the other believes in. It is to the credit of an inclusive space like a samooh, that women reflect whether the Swachh Bharat was really useful when there is no water to drink in the villages, or if the Pradhan Mantri’s Awas Yojana (Housing for All) has reached everyone, when clearly those in the Gameti and Bhil bastis of Gogunda block (Udaipur) haven’t received any benefit since 2014, mostly because they did not have 10,000 rupees to pay a bribe.
What remains to be done is that these critiques and demands need to infuse with the promises of the party candidates. The reflection should be done both ways and space should be created for their voices to be heard, instead of having exhaustive long rallies for the M.P candidates where there is hardly any space for citizens to put forward their demands.