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A slow march to progress

Apr 16, 2014

Times are a changing and none is a bigger witness than the Tharu people who live on the Indo-Nepal border.


The tribe that has traditionally survived on selling forest-produce and timber is gradually asserting itself and making inroads into the mainstream of society.

Just look at this example.

When the women workers of the Manguraha village in West Champaran did not get their MGNREGA wages for around 1.5 years for desilting a canal, they did an unthinkable thing–they got the local Panchayat Rozgar Sahayak (PRS) official transferred. The transfer happened just for a day. The official had not completed her wage records and got transferred in the meantime. The new official would not take up the matter. Caught in official apathy, women of the Tharu community sought help from local NGO, Samagra Shikshan Evam Vikas Sansthan (SSEVS), which lobbied with senior officials to find a way out and get the Tharu women their wages.

For a bureaucratic tangle, it was a bureaucratic solution. Had the Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme (PACS) not taken the lead in holding social audits of the world’s biggest employment guarantee scheme—the MGNREGA—getting their wages would have remained a struggle. PACS has roped in local partners like Development of Education Environmental Programme (DEEP) and SSEVS for the social audit, which has brought communities and district officials face to face for the first time, and thrown up problems in the open.

The Tharus find that MGNREGA work is not only beneficial at the individual level but also for the community. Despite the delay in wages, the Tharu women of Manguraha village are ready for more work because, “we find that it leads to village development. Also, we are able to find work in the village itself.”

With ground-level NGOs holding various kinds of meetings in villages, besides holding the social audits of MGNREGA, people have begun asserting themselves. Rajesh from DEEP says: “Now people have begun to understand that the mukhia’s word is not final. People know that they can get that work done which they want, not the one that officials may insist upon.”

This is an unusual momentum building up in Bihar villages. Recently DEEP launched the ‘kaam mango abhiyaan’ (ask for work campaign) under which they told the Tharu people that they have the right to ask for work from the government. “We told them that if they ask for work, they will be able to create assets for their villages and improve the conditions in their villages, says Rajesh.

At village Tara Basoria, another village inhabited by the Tharu community, a ward meeting is in progress. People have gathered in the chaupal, around a tree where besides the sarpanch and the PRS, representatives of DEEP are present to facilitate and document the outcome of the meeting. For many people present in the gathering, the fact that the government is giving away free radio sets is news. But there are people who say that they were not informed about the ward meeting. Then there are those women who have surrounded DEEP facilitators Bimlesh Kaji and Narendra to make them write their demands for work under MGNREGA.

Despite these victories, big and small, life for the Tharus is not easy. The Tharus of another village, the Bhikhna Thori, are sandwiched between the Pandai river and the Valmiki Tiger Reserve. They claim that they have been living here for decades but because of the forest being made a reserve forest they cannot take forest-produce on a large scale as earlier. Moreover, due to environmental concerns, the government has banned stone-mining from the Pandai river – which was another major source of livelihood for the villagers of Bhikhna Thori.

Though the villagers are aware of MGNREGA and its potential for the development of their village, they are only slowly getting used to MGNREGA work like afforestation and constructing amenities. But what bothers them is the constant threat of being relocated from their decades-old village regarding which they have appealed to the district magistrate. Only time will tell whether the villagers of Bhikhna Thori will be relocated, but their current hope of a decent living lies in getting work under the all-empowering MGNREGA—a change that rural India has embraced across the length and breadth of the nation.

This story has been done under a PACS-OneWorld partnership on MGNREGA

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