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Tribal women of Gujarat's Devgadh Baria speak up for their rights at public hearing

Demonstration by tribal women of Devgadh Baria
By Our Representative
Are the tribal women of Devgadh Baria, an eastern-most hilly taluka of Gujarat, coming out of their long-standing fear and beginning to speak up? It would seem so, if a public hearing organised by civil rights organizations Anandi and Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) next to the office of the sub-divisional magistrate (DSM) on December 10, International Human Rights Day, was any indication.
The public hearing saw about 650 persons, most of them poor women, boldly represent before government officials, called to listen to their grievances, which included failure to get ration at the public distribution system (PDS) shops, poor availability of food for children at the pre-school anganwadi centres, erratic distribution of widow pension, lack of disbursement of amount payable to pregnant women, and so on.
Ahead of the representation, a survey carried out among 26 villages suggested that of the 345 respondents, 107 had antyodaya ration cards meant for the poorest of the poor, and 117 were below poverty level (BPL) card holders. The ration distribution for the months of August, September and October 2019 showed that they received close to 52% and 46% lesser amount of wheat and rice than what they were entitled to.
"In numbers, 4810, 4876.5 and 4853.5 kg of wheat has not been distributed to entitled card-holders in August, September and October 2019, respectively. Similarly, 2303, 2350 and 2335 kg of rice has not been distributed for August, September and October 2019, respectively", the survey report, "Rozi Roti Lok Jumbesh 2019-Bariya Report", said.
Survey of 37 anganwadis in the 26 villages showed that only 16 of them had adequate space for activities, 16 had functional toilets, 12 had access to electricity and three had fans. Further, seven anganwadis did not serve breakfast and lunch as they should be serving. Distance of anganwadis was the most frequently cited issue by the respondents, the report said.
Aadhaar card related issues were the most frequently cited reasons for not getting maternity benefit
Further, in 26 villages, data was collected from 110 pregnant and lactating women. Out of 46 eligible pregnant women (first pregnancy), 35 had not received their entitlement, while five had received it. Further, out of 43 eligible pregnant women (next pregnancy), 23 had not received their entitlement, and 13 had not not applied for it.
The report states, "Aadhaar card related issues were the most frequently cited reasons for not getting maternity benefit. Many did not receive because they did not have bank accounts. Other reasons included name not included in the ration card and election card. Father’s name instead of husband’s name in official documents were also reasons for not being able to register for the maternity entitlement."
Then, the report says, data was collected from 489 persons who were eligible for pension -- including widow and old age pension. Only 125 of these had received pension. As many as 153 respondents said they had applied for pension but not received any communication, while 51 said they had not applied. Reasons included not having the aadhaar.
Representing before the officials, women said, they often did not receive ration despite the fact that they had the eligible card. The ration shops were often found to be closed or without adequate food supplies. They were supposed to get coupon from the panchayat office which would tell them the amount of ration they should get, but they were never given this coupon, as the printer all the time would be out of order.
A grassroots activist complained the pre-school anganwadis for their children were offering food only twice a day instead of three times, as stipulated. Some of the anganwadis were as far away as three km, and despite applications for opening a new one anganwadi in the village, there was no reply.
Widows said, they were not getting their pension for six to seven months. In fact, they often found that they were not getting the full amount they were entitled to, and suspected the post office staff appeared to be siphoning off a part of the amount they were to get. In many villages, the postman kept the passport with him, refusing to part with it, and threatened them with dire consequences if they complained.
MAGP's Pankti Jog said, "This is for the first time that I found tribal women speaking up fearlessly. Earlier, they wouldn't utter a word, fearful of the retaliation they might face. Credit for this goes to Anandi, the organization which has been working with tribal women of the taluka's villages for the last about 25 years."

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