An unusual ‘padyatra' or march by members of some 165 civil society groups from across India has just concluded in this dry, treeless district of northwestern Rajasthan state.
The 'padyatris' (marchers) had wound their way through every hamlet in this mainly tribal district, to assess the implementation of an ambitious government initiative to combat mass rural poverty.
It was in February that the Indian government introduced the national rural employment guarantee (NREG) scheme. Launched in 200 districts in
14 states, it promises 100 days of wage labour to one adult member in every rural household who volunteers for unskilled work.
In Dungarpur, villages are spread over vast stretches of land with solitary homes scattered over ‘dungars' or stony hillocks. Not a blade of grass or twig is in sight for miles on end.
Farming is virtually non-existent. Possibilities of finding work are remote except in sporadic relief works executed by the government.
Large-scale migration was the main avenue for employment.
In Asela panchayat (village-level administrative unit), marble mining was the only other source of work. But as Lata from Manpur village, who quit her job at a mine to enrol in the NREG said: "We are not even provided with water when we work in the mines. Working on NREG worksites is much better".
It is women who have come out in large numbers to avail of the opportunity to earn Rs 60 (about 1.5 dollars) a day. Most of the works involve breaking stones or moving earth. It is a hard grind under a hot relentless desert sun.
NREG worksites are islands of bright reds and greens, the colours favoured by the women in this brown, featureless landscape. According to the collector of Dungarpur, Manju Rajpal, more than 90 percent of the workers are women.
In some instances, such as the Shiv Sagar Talab worksite in Biladi panchayat, where a pond is being dredged, there is not a single male to be seen. The men have already migrated to neighbouring Gujarat state or to nearby towns looking for work.
The prospect of employment, close to home, is a real boon to the people.
Registration and the issuing of job cards have taken place on a massive scale. Every household in Dungarpur district has been issued a job card and one member of every other household has started working.
According to the Belgian-born economist Jean Dreze, chief designer of the new scheme and collaborator with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen on poverty research in India, the Dungarpur padyatra ‘'confirms that effective and transparent implementation of the NREG is possible'' and that it is ‘'not just a poverty alleviation scheme but also a powerful catalyst of social change in rural areas".
In mid-April, more than 600 participants from across India gathered in Dungarpur town to be trained to conduct ‘social audits' of NREG works.
The exercise was organised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and two other voluntary groups.
The aim is two-fold. To detect problems in the implementation of the NREG, so that improvements can be made before corrupt or ineffective procedures creep in and to create awareness among the people about the entitlements.
For the padyatra, participants divided into 31 ‘tolis' or groups, fanned out into the district to cover every panchayat and visit as many worksites as possible in nine days.
The social audit is a process by which programmes are monitored by the beneficiaries themselves at every stage of implementation. As a result, it has both encouraged people's participation, and put a most effective check on corruption.
In Dungarpur, the administration was remarkably well prepared to implement the NREG. Job cards were issued and works started on time with muster rolls updated and showing far fewer discrepancies than have been found in earlier schemes.
However, awareness of people's entitlements is still low. That 100 days of employment a year is now guaranteed to them and they can ask for it as their right is yet to be understood. Most regard it as yet another government scheme.
The women trudge 4-5 kms everyday to get to work by six am, and stay on the site till two pm when work stops for the day. While water is available, there are no other facilities offered on the site.
All the women who were interviewed complained of fatigue and headaches.
Ganga Bai at the Mathugumda check dam site said: "Our bodies ache from lifting the heavy implements for digging and breaking stones all day and the hot sun gives us a constant headache.''
One area in which the NREG in Dungarpur has failed is in providing childcare facilities. Children of all ages are simply left alone at home while their mothers are at work — the older ones who may only be five or six years of age look after the infants. The children are fed before their mothers leave for work and after they return.
When asked what happens to them in the interim, the most common refrain
was: "Ooparwale ke bharose chhod kar aate hain, kya karen? (We leave them to the mercy of providence, what else can we do)?" (END/2006)