When women keep watch

When women keep watch

When women keep watch

Across Bihar and Odisha, there are several women who are raising their voices to assert their community’s rights and entitlements under the various government-run food security and poverty alleviation schemes, writes Elsa Patnaik.

“Don’t water down the khichidi, Sona Devi is coming this way,” whisper the women preparing the mid-day meal (MDM) at the local primary school in Bhaluai village in Bihar’s Nawada district.

Sona Devi, 45, is a member of the Jaanch (search) Committee that checks the quality of food served to the students and she believes the authorities need to be uncompromising when it comes to ensuring the high standards of the meals served under the MDM scheme.

Otherwise shy, Sona who keeps her head covered with her pallu, is a tigress when it comes to articulating this concern. As she puts it, “The children need good food and they are entitled to it.”

Across Bihar and Odisha, two of India’s poorest states, there are several women like Sona Devi who are raising their voices to assert their community’s rights and entitlements under the various government-run food security and poverty alleviation schemes. In fact, women, organised under Self Help Groups (SHGs), have emerged as a strong force against corruption and malpractice at the village level.

Like Sona, Geeta Devi of Sonbarsa village, is a familiar figure in her Barachatti block of Bihar’s Gaya district. In 2011, Geeta led a movement to curb corrupt practices in food rationing in her block. She mobilised 400 women across 19 villages to form pressure groups and organised a series of meetings to motivate families to join in.

Her efforts paid off when the deprived Below Poverty Line (BPL) card holders turned up in large numbers to stage a dharna outside the Block Development Office (BDO) demanding proper distribution of sanctioned government rations.

The BDO, after conducting an inquiry and assessing the facts, issued an order to commence regular supply of food grains. More than 100 people holding ‘red’ ration cards because they lived below the poverty line have since been receiving regular provisions.

Says a proud Geeta, “We had struggled to avail of this benefit for nearly one and a half years. Initially, we had visited the dealers individually but they did not pay any attention to our demands. Then, when all of us came together and staged a dharna and later followed it up with regular visits to the block office, it yielded positive results.”

Over the years, several social security schemes have been periodically announced by the Central as well as State governments. Whether it’s the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, or the Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY) — all of them are interventions designed to increase the access of the poor to health care and nutritional benefits.

The reality however is that often it is the poorest who are unable to derive the benefits meant for them, because of their own illiteracy and lack of information as well as an apathetic system and indifferent, corrupt administrators. 

Changing times

But times are slowly changing, thanks to the tireless efforts of a few good women. Poonam Verma is the ever-smiling community activist of Bahargada village in Bihar’s Barachatti block.

Poonam and several other women, who have formed SHGs in the village, spread awareness on schemes such as the JSY, old age and widow pensions and are now helping in identifying beneficiaries from their village. Says Poonam, “Earlier, women used to give birth in goshalas in our village but now we are motivating expectant mothers to deliver their babies safely in hospitals and also get maternal benefits that are due to them under the JSY.”

In 2011, women from the Mahadalit Manjhi community across different villages in Bihar came forward and demanded jobs under MGNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of unskilled wage work to every village household. The men from these villages would migrate to neighbouring states in search of jobs during the lean season.

So, it was those left behind, largely women, who attended village level meetings organised by a local organisation acting as facilitator, and understood the process of applying for jobs. A total of 172 job cards were received thanks to the efforts of these women, and today they are able to hold informed discussions with the Rojgar Sevak on jobs and equal wages.

From the experience of the Mahadalit Manjhi community, it’s clear that keeping a constant vigil on the actions of local government officials is the key towards ensuring that communities derive their entitled benefits. Here the role of community level leaders like Kaushalya Devi and Sangeeta Kumari, from Bihar’s Nawada and Gaya districts respectively, becomes crucial.

The two women who have been engaged by the facilitating NGO have been able to made a significant difference. Says the duo, “We continuously put pressure on government officials by organising the community and raising their awareness about their constitutional and basic entitlements.”

Awareness raising is achieved largely through village-level gatherings in which government officials and panchayat members also participate. “The situation is gradually changing and there is a feeling of cooperation and mutual understanding between the beneficiaries and the government,” say the two women.

As an initial step, Kaushalya and Sangeeta organised focus group discussions within the community on various government programmes. This platform is also used to review the schemes and general participation, in order to improve service delivery.

In the tribal districts of Odisha, too, women have been able to make a difference through their involvement. For instance, in Dasamanthpur block of Koraput district, local women are now participating in monitoring immunisation programmes, sanitation activities and informal education in the local Anganwadi Centres (AWCs). Further, they are taking an active interest in sending their children to school and have become aware of the benefits of institutional delivery.

As recognition of their good work, some block administrations in Koraput have also selected SHGs to supply food materials such as rice, dal, suji, eggs, vegetables and nutrient mixture to the AWCs at the village level.

In addition, SHGs like Subarnajyoti from Paikapuki village are now the official kerosene dealers for the PDS in their area. Says Kamala Khara, Secretary of the group, “I never knew that one day I would get an opportunity to meet and talk to the district collector. It was a moment of personal pride for me.” 

The participation of these village women in various community-level activities has brought about a double benefit. While it has made for greater transparency and accountability in the running of government programmes, it has also transformed the women themselves and given them a stake in the future.

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