If NREGA is to have a strong impact, it must be extended to more needy villages on a larger scale, and prompt payment of wages must be ensured to help alleviate some of the issues faced by residents.
Banda (UP): Imagine toiling from early morning until late evening every day for 40 days, without being paid a single rupee.
Such has been the situation for about 80 workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the Nibi village of Naraini Block in Banda district, Uttar Pradesh, one of the most acutely drought-affected districts in the country. Work started here on December 31, but even forty days later, on February 8 (the day of my visit to Nibi village), no worker had received a payment yet. Finally, on February 9, a part of the amount due was paid.
The NREGA law requires that wages be paid within 15 days, but this rule has been violated in Nibi and other parts of Banda too. Staggering under a series of crop failures and barely surviving, the villagers are finding it very difficult to withstand the delay in wages.
As Parvatiya, one of the women employed at the NREGA work site, says, “We eat only rotis with salt and chutney. We leave home at six in the morning and work until seven or eight in the evening. We come to work without eating anything as leftovers from the night are left for the children. We work on empty stomachs until around noon. Our children are able to bring us food only then.”
Prem Narayan, another worker, adds, “By the time we reach home, we are extremely tired and weak. Several families are down to cooking just one meal a day.” But, even rotis eaten without dal and vegetable is not enough to fill the stomach.
All workers at the site are from the Dalit basti and have experienced almost a complete loss of crop. Raja Bhaiya, a social activist who works with the Nibi residents, says, “When interns working with us conducted a malnutrition survey among the children, the levels were found to be very high in the Nibi Dalit village.”
If the workers were paid on time, they would have been able to eat nutritious food. But other responsibilities take priority over filling their own stomachs. “Of course we first try to meet the needs of children,” says Parvatiya. Chunki adds, “I had hoped that I’ll use the wages to pay the fees for my daughter’s education, but it appears this may not be possible now.”
Besides, with delayed wages, they are forced to seek help from other sources. According to Parvatiya if they borrow money from a lender to buy foodgrain, they have to pay it back at a 5% monthly interest rate, and if they borrow four kilos grain this month, they have to return five kilos the next month.
“But even borrowing at this high rate is becoming difficult now as the richer people taunt us by saying – now you have NREGA work, why do you come to us,” says Ram Phal, another worker.
In addition, many people are not receiving subsidised foodgrains as per the rates of the new food security law (two rupees per kg for wheat and three rupees for rice), despite the new rates going into effect from January. For a six-member family, typical for these parts, the subsidised grain is adequate only for a week or so. This means, that for the remaining days of the month the market rate (19 rupees per kg for wheat) has to be paid. Other villages in the Naraini block are also facing similar hardships.
In Naugavan village, too, NREGA workers have been waiting for their wages, while some have also not received subsidised food. The situation is far worse in the nearby Naugaon village as it has seen a very high mortality rate in the past year or two years. Several families attribute the current situation to multiple vulnerabilities – the premature death of the main income-earner, diseases and disability. Thus, when NREGA wages and subsidised food are denied or delayed, the situation becomes graver.
In Kyotra village, there is no school and anganwadi, no electricity and so far no NREGA. The Kevat families in Kyotra are among the poorest, having not only lost their meagre crops but also the fishing-related earnings due to the depletion of water in the rapidly drying Bagain River.
All the families here say they eat only one meal a day – a few rotis with salt. Several families are suffering from diseases, high levels of malnutrition and extreme hunger. Nearly one hundred farm and dairy animals have perished in Kyotra in the last two months due to the serious shortage of fodder. Yashdhiya, a villager, has lost six animals while Girja has lost five animals. The impact of chronic deprivation is evident in most families, especially in those like that of 50-year-old Bhura Kevat. In a single year, he has lost four family members – two younger brothers, his wife and father.
But in a village facing such extreme deprivation, NREGA work has not started begun. In fact, for months last year work under the scheme was unavailable, resulting in large-scale migration. Although some work is now available, many villages remain excluded. If NREGA is to have a strong impact, it must be extended to more needy villages on a larger scale, and prompt payment of wages must be ensured to help alleviate some of the issues faced by the residents of Banda and other such districts.