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The Ward finds a voice

Apr 01, 2014

In the Bhelu Bigha village, in Jehanabad district, villagers are gathering in the hot September sun. Bihar has had poor rains this year and most districts are in the grip of a drought.


In meetings across villages in Bihar, men and women are coming out of their mud-huts. Nothing unusual about the sight. But then you hear shouts and excited voices from an assembly. The rural folk get into animated discussions and even arguments. Men and, also, women.

These are not the usual rustic shouts. These are shouts of empowerment, of demanding rights and seeking entitlements. A collective of NGOs in Bihar, working with the Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS), is urging people at the lowest rung of the governance unit, the ward, to talk and hold debates; find out what ails their villages and tell their leaders and also the government to take action.

It is no exaggeration to say that this is probably the first time in their lives that people in the smallest unit, the ward level, are coming together for a meeting to discuss and to demand. Now that they have come together, they have begun asking their local leaders, panchayat members as well as the officialdom to bring about a change in their hamlets and villages.

Till now, it was given that what the government says is final. But now things are changing.

In the Bhelu Bigha village, in Jehanabad district, villagers are gathering in the hot September sun. Bihar has had poor rains this year and most districts are in the grip of a drought. But the people here are hopeful. They are gathering for their first-ever ward sabha meeting. And they are not much aware of decorum, formalities or the conduct of an official meeting.

They have but one agenda –to discuss improvements in their village. And speak they do. No wonder the voices are raised and there is confusion. But the demands are put forth and those are genuine. The laying of drains; the construction of a hand pump; building a kuccha road to connect the houses of the Dalit tola; construction of toilets and the rebuilding of a collapsed mud house.

Check out a video on the grassroots empowerment.

All these demands have a common underlying, and empowering, factor – the game changing, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA), one of the world’s largest employment guarantee schemes. But MGNREGA is much more than an employment scheme. One of its strongest points it to build village assets for the common good and even allot funds for individual households to build ponds, shelters for animals, toilets, farm bunding and wells on their private lands.

Arti Verma, from the PACS programme that works with a clutch of NGOs to make rural people aware of their rights, says that it is not often that people are part of a public discussion. “With the ward sabha meetings, they can ask for both individual and community benefit schemes under MGNREGA. Earlier they were not even aware that MGNREGA would provide for creating assets on their personal land.”

Tulsidas, one of the local leaders and a daily wage labourer at Bhelu Bigha village, is angry. Because it is a public meeting, he musters the courage to complain about delayed payments under MGNREGA. He is lucky, as are the other villagers, because there are three officials – the Panchayat Rozgar Sewak (PRS), the village headman and the ward member – who hear him out.

But it may not be the same positive story everywhere.

The scene in Ahirwalia village in the West Champaran district is different. Though people have gathered for the ward sabha meeting, no village official is present. Activists from the village and campaigners of the Samagra Shiksha Evam Vikas Sansthan (SSEVS), another PACS partner, call various officials to inquire if they would preside over the ward sabha meeting. The activists are concerned whether the proceedings of their ward sabha meeting will be considered legitimate and official.

The rest of the story is the same. People are told about the modalities of the ward sabha meeting; the entitlements under MGNREGA; the difference between work on common land and that on individual land; how payments are to be calculated; that the wages are paid within fifteen days and so on.

It takes time for villagers to warm up. Once they open up, they are vocal. They have a litany of complaints. The PACS Zonal Coordinator, Azad Alam, diligently writes down the complaints, suggestions, questions from the villagers. He also gets them to put their signatures, or their thumb impressions, against their queries.

All these suggestion papers from the Ahirwalia village as well as Bhelu Bigha will be put forth at the Panchayat meeting on October 2. And it is most likely that Tulsidas’ complaints will be heard beyond his confines of his mud hut and action taken. Government officials and village leaders are taking up individual complaints and suggestions. People are finally becoming partners in their progress.

The tiniest unit of the Indian political system, the ward, is asking for and witnessing democracy. This in itself is empowerment through MGNREGA.

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

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