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Social inclusion: How MGNREGA 'helped' marginalized sections in Rann of Kutch

Thoryari pond site during MGNREGA work in 2019
By Gazala Paul, Pawan Atkari, Ashish Mehta*

Every year, the stories of deprivation and lack of access to food and water among the people of Rapar and the Bhachau blocks in the Little and the Big Rann of Kutch in Gujarat are pretty much the same. Amidst the vastness of the desert and the salty marsh, residents, especially those who are economically and socially weak, would somehow survive.
But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit India, followed by national lockdown imposed in the third week of March, people's livelihoods, already struck hard by a general countrywide economic slump, crumbled: overnight, many lost their modest jobs, others went without wages. For some this meant imminent starvation, irrespective of the fact that the people of Rann are hardy.
In April, sensing that people's sources of income would dry up completely, Samerth Trust, which simultaneously ran programmes centred on making drinking water and food grains available to the villagers of Rapar and Bhachau, started mobilizing communities to get work under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) programme.
MGNREGA's core objective is to provide 150 days of unskilled manual work as guaranteed employment in a financial year to rural household, though based on demand, and to enable strengthening the livelihood resource bases of the poor and marginalised. This would also have the spinoff benefit of ensuring social inclusion as well as strengthening Panchayati Raj institutions.
Facilitating people's access to MGNREGA employment is not a new programme for Samerth. In fact, it has previously harnessed the scheme in Kutch, which helped the NGO take a decision to respond by taking on the unemployment challenge posed by the impact of the lockdown. Last year, Samerth supported communities with MGNREGA implementation in Nanda, Bhamansar, Kanmer, Rampar, Gagoder, Manaba, Thoryari, Bela, Balasar, Dhadharo, Trambou, Vallabhpur, Sai and Taga villages of Rapar block.
As many as 3,710 villagers benefitted from work under the scheme in which a sum of Rs 41,12,956 was utilised in the 2019-20 financial year. In Thoryari village, where a pond was rejuvenated, 100 residents benefitted, earning a total of Rs 3,53,140 as wages for their labour.
Subsequently, Samerth enabled the completion of the embankment and levelling of earth for deepening the pond. Since then, there has been round-the-year water: the 285 households and 1,745 small ruminants and cattle have plenty of drinking water now.
Likewise, Samerth's intervention under MGNREGA by repairing the waste weir of the Popatiyu pond in Bhamansar village, involving utilisation of Rs 2,52,550, helped 754 residents get employment in 2019-20. This helped in improving the capacity of the pond, which in turn brought more cultivable fields under irrigation. Consequently, the produce also went up.
Last year, following Samerth's intervention, 15 farmers cultivated 158 acres of land under the rabi crop. Besides, 105 cattle heads use the water for drinking purposes. This when previously cattle herders would take their animals to Adesar village which is 5 kms away from Bhamansar.
Typically, to get work under MGNREGA, a household must apply for an MGNREGA job card from the gram panchayat (elected village council). Each household is entitled to one job card. However, each card can have any number of names on it from that household. The job card is valid for at least five years following which it may be renewed after due verification.
Pond filled with water in June 2020
During the pandemic, the Indian government announced that people could access MGNREGA work for creating livelihoods in the rural areas (Circular No 9 issued on April 15, 2020). It became more critical to see that MGNREGA work was widely implemented. On the contrary, the team faced many challenges on the ground to implement the MGNREGA in the intervention villages.Suffice it to say that Samerth Trust works in 33 panchayats and 66 hamlets of Rapar and Bhachau blocks in both the small and the big Rann.
It was not smooth sailing, however, for the communities. One of the first challenges they faced was generating demand for MGNREGA work. And this was because of the inactive job cards. The job cards must be renewed every five years, which is done online from the taluka office. Besides, they must be confirmed by the talati (revenue office) who recommends to the Assistant Project Officer (APO) of the MGNREGA office at the block level.
The Samerth team and jaldoots facilitated collection of information for the job cards, Aadhar card numbers and bank accounts. With the support of the revenue officer, this information is submitted at the block level. This led to only those nameson the muster roll who had active job cards and block official refused to enter new data. The block official ran half the capacity due to the pandemic. 
(Samerth team in Rapar works with 20 jaldoots who are from local villages and trained in the water conservation work, geo-hydrology and participatoryground water managementconcepts. They support the core team of Samerth to facilitate work at the village level.)
In Samerth's intervention villages, of the total 7,727 job cards, only 4,560 were active. In villages such as Bhimdevka, fully dominated by the Koli community, there are only six active job cards. This resulted in the Kolis losing out the opportunity to avail MGNREGA work and the ones who were the most vulnerable had to borrow money from money lenders at high rates of interest. 
During lockdown Samerth has helped communities generate MGNREGA work demand and ensuring water conservation
The second challenge for the Samerth team was in the delay of technical sanctions in Kanmer, Badalpar and Pratapgarh villages of Rapar block. The issue of technical sanctions for work was delayed by block officials. When the Samerth team constantly followed up on this, the technical sanctions were approved after a month. This caused a 'loss' of a week's worth of work.
The lists of those who wanted work under MGNREGA was submitted to talaltis of both the blocks in May 2020. Some of them took leave and left home due to the pandemic and later submitted in mid-June, but these were rejected due to delay and rains.

Role of Samerth team:

The role of the Samerth team and jaldoots was to contact households, collect information for raising work demand, submit these to revenue officers and follow the work demand at the block level. Along with this process, Samerth jaldoots also worked as MGNREGA mates. They maintained constant contact with village sarpanches andrevenue officers and block level MGNREGA department. 
(Mates are responsible for managing the project worksite, deciding who and how many people to employ, keeping a record of the labourers' hours and monitoring the progress and quality of the work.)
The Samerth team helped communities in 12 villages of Rapar block and two villages of Khadir region for MGNREGA work. A total of Rs 12,49,699 was leveraged in Gadhda and Janan village of Bhachau block and Rs 22,87,230 was utilisedin 12 villages of Rapar block. With the support of individual and institutional donors, Samerth also did desilting workin 28 ponds of 25 villages in Rapar block, 10 ponds in Khadir region of Bhachau block.
Lessons learned and future plans: One of the major lessons was that in many villages, of the total job cards only half were found to be active. The Samerth team conducted mini gram sabhas and took up the matter with the main village councils for inclusion in last year's village development plans. This led to deepening of ponds and works were listed in the panchayat resolution before being submitted to block officials.
Grass seeding under MGNREGA work in Thoryari village
Now, Samerth team's major plan is to reactivate the inactive job cards in each of the intervention villages. Even as the jobcards renewal process goes online, jaldoots and the team are compiling household information at the village level, which will subsequently be submitted at the block level. For a better understanding of the whole process, the team is planning to discusswith block MGNREGA the project officer and the taluka development officer for proper guidance.
Also, Samerth will prepare a short video for easier comprehension of the steps for job card activation and support for preparing technical sanctions.

Success and challenging stories from villages:

Samerth has been helping different communities in the villages to generate work demand under the MGNREGA scheme, besides ensuring water conservation during the lockdown. On November 16, 2019, Samerth and the jaldoot team conducted a mini gram sabha at Kanmer village. In the course of this session, the sarpanch, elected ward members and revenue officer were present. The demand for work was generated by home visits by the jaldoots who collected all necessary documents.
In Kanmer village, people from marginalised communities such as Dalits, Mulsims, Bharwad and Rabari expressed their desire to work under MGNREGA. As many as 80 job cards were added. However, when they did not get any response from the block officials even after a week had elapsed, the Samerth team and jaldoots met the sarpanch on several occasions.
And yet there was no concrete response. The team then went to the block development officer (BDO) and filed a written complaint. This produced the desired result and a week later information was received. The technical sanction had not been initiated because there was a delay in receiving it at the block level. 
Meanwhile, work could not be initiated because of the rains in Kanmer. Later, plantation work was taken up in the village, in which 11 labourers got employment and Rs 7,392 of fund utilisation was done by paying wages.

Example of active sarpanch and role of mates:

Thoryari village panchayat is located on one side of the Little Rann of Kutch in Rapar block. It comprises 285 families and the total population stands at 1,470 consisting mainly Koli, Bharwad and Patel communities. Every summer, the Kolis migrate to other locations for making charcoal, salt pan work and construction in nearby towns.
But this year, the Covid-19 lockdown prevented the villagers from accessing these jobs. This loss of livelihood was compensated by employment under the MGNREGA scheme. Besides, other socially excluded communities such as the Bharwad and Rabari joined MGNREGA work. The Samerth team and panchayat members together helped them with procuring new job cards.
The village sarpanches took up the initiative and met block officials for work demand and were able to get the technical sanction, worth Rs 4.83 lakh approved for deepening the Pabusari pond. As many as 106 persons from 78 households got four weeks of jobs.
Following this, work, valued at Rs 2,49,046, on deepening the Kahrivaru pond began in earnest. For both Pabusari and Kahrivaru ponds, Samerth jaldoots worked as MGNREGA mates and played an active role to ensure smooth progression of the work. The wages earned by the labourers was a huge relief for the families during the difficult lockdown period. The average income earned by each job card-holder was Rs 8,550.
A job card sample in Kanmer village
Thoryari panchayat took a new leap under MGNREGA. The villagers did grass seeding on five acres of land. For plantation and grass seeding, 14 villagers joined work and Rs 41,616 was paid as wages. This will help the shepherd communities to graze their cattle and provide fodder for the animals.
The panchayat sowed grass seed on five acres of land and next year they are planning to expand this to 10 acres of land. Through the MGNREGA scheme they will demand storage facility of fodder, which later will be sold to villagers. To protect the pasture land, the panchayat has hired three people for maintenance and security.

Lessons learned:

  • The role of sarpanches and elected members is crucial for the families belonging to the excluded communities, especially because they help in putting together the documents in advance.
  • The block level team and the assistant project officer have to work closely to ensure that more work is executed to develop water-based assets and the region is rejuvenated by water bodies for domestic use and irrigation. 
  • This is a big window of opportunity in the rural areas to generate employment for 150 days for unskilled jobs and create assets for water conservation. 
  • The revival of ponds and dams in the rain-fed areas such as Kutch provides an opportunity to take up two crops and sustain the food and income needs by selling cash crops. 
  • MGNREGA officials at the ground level need training, motivation and support so that they can actively participate in inclusion of socially excluded communities seeking opportunities to avail MGNREGA. 
These recommendation and learnings will help to reduce the rural distress by engaging the community for revival and repairing of water bodies and the rainwater collected can be used for millet cultivation, promoting animal husbandry and earn wages through guaranteed employment. This will, in a way, also be able to tackle the upcoming food crisis which is being apprehended due to the current pandemic situation by utilizing MGNREGA to the fullest capacity.
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*Gazala Paul is founder and managing trustee of Samerth Trust, Ahmedabad. Ashish Mehta is programme manager. Pawan Atkari is project coordinator of Samerth’s Kutch Programme. Contact: info@samerth.org

Comments

Great work by Semerth team. Wish you all the best, keep doing good work.

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