When Radhika Devi of Ghazipur district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, along with other women of her village, went to the gram pradhan to collect job cards under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), he flatly refused saying he had no time. Radhika told him about the provision of the Act that cards have to be issued within 15 days after registering an application. The pradhan reportedly shouted at her and dared her to do whatever she wanted to. Radhika and her companions then complained to the secretary. When this also did not help, they went to the Block Development Officer, who heard them patiently but did not take any action.
Radhika and her group did not give up though. After a few days, they went to a public hearing and gave a written application to the District Magistrate. The Magistrate immediately took notice of the matter and warned the BDO that if the women didn't get their job cards within two days, he would stop the salary of all concerned employees. The very next day, the pradhan called Radhika and her group and distributed them their job cards.
Many Dalit and backward class women like Radhika have found a unique way to fight corruption and irregularities in government schemes. About 80,000 women of nine districts have been fighting and creating awareness to get their legal entitlements like right to food, right to work and right to health. Working under the banner of Nari Sangh, these women have succeeded in regularising almost 268 PDS shops in the past four years. It was not an easy task to get job cards, payment receipts and pass books under the right to work scheme, but collective efforts of the women has resulted in providing work to 45,000 families in 666 gram panchayats.
The Districts of U.P. — Ambedkar Nagar, Azamgarh, Mau, Ghazipur, Varanasi, Pratapgarh, Basti and Maharajganj — are mostly populated by landless Dalits and backward classes. Male members of the families either have permanently migrated or migrate for six months to cities to earn their livelihood. Seema, president of Nari Sangh of Lalganj village in Pratapgarh district, says, “When the MGNREGA started in my village, I thought it gives work only to men. Then in one of the meetings of the gram sabha, I was told that women are also entitled to get the work if no male member is available to work in the family.” But getting work for women is not easy. Initially she was given work for only two days. She had to fight to get employment for more days. Then for two and half months she was not paid.
People's Action for National integration (PANI), a Faizabad-based NGO, started providing technical assistance to these women in 2007 with the support of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. In the first phase, with the help of local organisations, they identified eight to 10 women leader in every panchayat. These women were called ‘Agua' or leader. As a result, awareness among women about their rights and entitlements is going up. Shashi Bhushan, programme director of PANI, says that the State's annual average performance under MGNREGA is 32.65 per cent, but in panchayats where Nari Sangh is active the average performance has reached up to 69 per cent.
The programme is very cost-effective as we have been spending Rs. 240 rupees per family annually, pointed out Nayana Choudhary of Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. “Next year we are planning to reach more than one lakh women. Due to the success of the project, we are planning to replicate it in other States as well.”