Right next to the village home in Devdungri, Rajsamand, Rajasthan where I lived and worked with Mazdoor Kisan Shakthi Sangathan from 1998, live Chiman Singh and his wife Meera. Both of them used to migrate to Ahmedabad for six months where they, along with Chiman ji’s brother, ran a tea stall. They left behind their young children — Kakku, Tulsi, Preetam and Prabhu, their hut, their tiny strip of land which was mortgaged most of the time to a moneylender, and their few goats and sheep. Chiman ji was the first chaiwallah who we became friends with, and over the years we got to know the family really well.
The fortunate and unfortunate
We used to be amazed at how competently the children would cope for the six months while their parents were away. I could not even begin to imagine the burden of going to school while running a home and sleeping alone at night as a teenager. Kakku had been doing it since she was eight. Every six months their parents would return, and from the income earned through back-breaking work for sixteen hours a day in their tiny tea stall they would try and survive for the rest of the year.
In 2000, Chiman ji’s chai ki dukaan was declared illegal and demolished by the Municipal Corporation (had we known then that his Chief Minister had also owned a tea stall at some point, we might have written to him with an appeal to save Chiman ji’s livelihood). Without any means of livelihood his family faced a crisis. At the age of 55, Chiman ji left for distant Hubli in Karnataka with his family. They would return to their hometown once every year. At that time, most young men and women of our village were migrating to limestone quarries in Hubli — quarries that gave them money, albeit at a huge cost to their health and well-being.
We wondered what Chiman ji and Meera could do at a limestone quarry at that age. We later came to know that the contractor and owner paid piece-rate wages and therefore, regardless of how low the output, work was extracted for every rupee paid. Four years later, Chiman ji got tuberculosis and the family couldn’t even go back to Hubli. But by then, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) had begun and Meera went to work, keeping the family afloat.
There were others who were not as fortunate. Dao Singh, a couple of years younger than me, had been working at the same limestone factory since he was 14. Dao also got tuberculosis, but these were years of drought and he had to keep working till he could work no more. He came back home hoping he would find a means to survive while overcoming the disease. We tried very hard to get him treated by taking him to Udaipur. However, just doing daily chores became an insurmountable challenge, and his poverty and unemployment limited what medicines could do.
In Devdungri during a drought, it took 10 brisk strokes of the handle of the hand pump before water would begin trickling, and an additional 35 strokes before I could fill a pot of water. It was during one such effort to fetch water that Dao, ahead of me in the line, suddenly vomited blood, collapsed and died at the hand pump. Years of malnutrition combined with the fumes he ingested at the limestone factory took its toll on him. Dao died before MGNREGA came. Once the modern economy had extracted its share he had nothing to turn to for survival. Unlike the success story of the tea stall owner who became Prime Minister, there are many others like Chiman ji whose humble dreams have been forgotten in a battle for survival. They have only been more fortunate than Dao because MGNREGA has allowed them to try and rebuild their lives, with a measure of dignity.
Restricting a lifeline
To say that Chiman ji’s family has been saved by MGNREGA would not be an exaggeration since Meera began to work for 100 days in addition to doing other causal work in the area. Even though minimum wages were not being paid, MGNREGA ensured that the wage rate for casual labour went up far beyond the exploitative wages that were the norm. Chiman ji stayed at home to recover from his illness and a broken hip, a result of a fall. As the children entered adulthood they began to look for work themselves. Meera and Chiman ji now get an old age pension of Rs. 500 each. Meera still completes 100 days of work a year on MGNREGA worksites. If their pension had been a more dignified amount, she would have stopped working. However, without the roughly Rs.15,000 annual income from MGNREGA, she and Chiman ji would not be able to make ends meet in the face of inflation.
Meera suffered the many trials and tribulations of poor implementation of social sector entitlements. There are inordinate delays in payments, wage payments are cut arbitrarily, pension payments come with a 4-5 months backlog. By normal standards this would seem like a nightmare. Yet, Chiman ji and Meera will be the first to explain how these schemes have allowed them to survive while retaining some modicum of dignity. Their children are at the fringes of a market economy, working hard but still looking for the better days that this government has promised. For them and for their parents, better days cannot come through undermining or restricting the programmes that have been their lifeline.
Preetam, their youngest son, is in the process of being granted admission in Rajasthan’s Central University for the Masters of Social Work programme. It will take a lot of effort for the family to find the resources to send him to this course. But take away social security benefits from the family and there is little doubt that Preetam will be found in the limestone quarries of Hubli where he spent many years of his childhood. In 2006, MGNREGA came as a boon, not just for Chiman ji, but for lakhs of poor people in Rajasthan and other parts of India. It gave them a measure of protection against distress migration.
As Director of Social Audits in undivided Andhra Pradesh, I have come across hundreds of thousands of such families and their stories of how MGNREGA has helped them be better participants in our economic growth.
As Narendra Modi’s government presents its new budget and seeks to restructure MGNREGA, it must remember that it cannot weaken it in terms of employment, entitlements, or monetary allocations. P. Chidambaram used the budget to squeeze the programme so employment figures steadily fell. To continue down this path would be a disaster. The Ministers of Finance and Rural Development must recognise that the changes that millions of beneficiaries of MGNREGA are looking for are real guarantee, effective implementation and better delivery. With a drought situation looming large, India cannot cope without a strong MGNREGA. Undermining the programme would cause widespread unrest among India’s most vulnerable people.
The budgetary implications of MGNREGA’s share in the national budget would have immediate and direct implications on household budgets of the rural poor across India. Will our Prime Minister remember his past and help support those who have not been as fortunate as him?
(Sowmya Kidambi is Director, Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency. She is also with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakthi Sangathan.)