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Helping get NREGA work, Mahila Sangh 'inspires' women to come off traditional role

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi

The Budhner Narmada Mahila Sangh, a federation consisting of 385 women’s self-help groups in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, is playing a major role in the planning and execution of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA) work in several villages of Mohgaon block. Formed in 2012 for empowering rural women on livelihood issues, income enhancement, agriculture and livestock, the federation is the apex body governing all women’s groups which come under it.
MGNREGA, as a social security scheme, guarantees 100 days of labour work in lieu of payment to rural communities in Indian villages since its launch in 2006. Narmada mahila sangh president Saraswati Maravi, a resident of Mungwani village in Mandla, informed that before its formation women in many villages of Mohgaon did not possess a clear-cut idea about MGNREGA and how it can change the face of villages.
“After grassroots non-profit PRADAN started working with us, we gradually came to know that MGNREGA is a positive scheme through which large-scale developmental activities can be carried out in villages. To reap maximum benefits out of the scheme, women from the federation started attending meetings of the gram sabha during which they placed their views. Gradually, our members showed interest in how plans under MGNREGA are executed and attended janpad (local government body) meetings. Now, we know which officials to approach to get things done faster,” Maravi added.

Changes on the ground

It has been a huge achievement for almost 4,500 women associated with the Budhner Narmada Mahila Sangh, said Sumendra Punia, PRADAN executive, who works for the organisation in Mandla. A few sangh members admitted that when it is a question of the benefit of rural communities, personal approach is time consuming, but as a group it is always helpful and things move to the next level much faster.
A positive change that has happened in Mohgaon is that apart from MGNREGA work, women associated with the sangh have also opened up meaningful debates in the community on gender, domestic violence, health and nutrition. Discussions are happening with men too in several villages of the block.
It often happens that panchayat members are not that responsive to our needs. So, in these cases, the sangh raises its voice collectively. “Women are getting more confident as a result of this and their role and responsibility are fast changing in a traditional male-dominated society. Most of the times, the sangh also tries to get dates for meeting the zilla parishad chief executive officer and other officials,” Maravi pointed out.
The main aim of the sangh is to hold government officials accountable for their performance. In the past two years, there have been several attempts made by women members to meet the block development officer and they have succeeded in this mission.
On being asked as to how men are responding to women taking the lead role, the sangh president admitted that at first the men could not understand our mission and constantly questioned the purpose of meetings and formation of self-help groups under an umbrella federation. “There are issues still, but an improvement has been made. As we worked hard over the past four years, gradually people came to recognise us. Now, some men appreciate the work done by us,” Maravi said.

Arresting migration

Besides making women come out of their traditional roles, MGNREGA work in the village has arrested migration by offering jobs to the local population. A lot of water harvesting structures like jalkunds (water basins) and farm ponds have been created, boosting agriculture which is the main means of livelihood in Mandla. This year during monsoon, the women federation members also carried out tree plantation in a common land during which they planted 22,600 saplings.
Punia said that the main aim of PRADAN’s work was to bring about improvement in the economic status of rural communities. “Most villages in Mandla district are dependent on farming but farmers face issues like water scarcity and poor soil health. Thus, it is imperative for villages to create good assets and MGNREGA is the only means to go about it.”
As a non-profit, PRADAN works with women’s collectives and empowers them so that they can collaborate with panchayats, the district administration and government departments in capacity building. Initially, discussions happened at the village level and women were exposed to work in other states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Amol Das Bairagi, MGNREGA gram rozgar sahayak from Chubhawal gram panchayat in Mohgaon, said after initial discussions, a design was made with the help of the patwari or village-level accountant. Work started with the treatment of lands in the higher elevation and gradually moved on to lands in the lower reaches.
In the past four years, over 1,000 acres of land have been treated and 330 units of work have been done for rainwater harvesting. “Women members of the Narmada sangh helped us a lot. Earlier, they were not much aware about these things but the scenario has changed since 2017-2018 when work started in many villages of Mohgaon block in Mandla. A lot of activity has been carried out on contour trenches to prevent landslides from top to bottom,” Bairagi added.
MGNREGA mate Nanhesingh Netam, who looks after Dhamanpani village in Mohgaon, pointed out that positive results have come about in all villages after the women’s sangh arrived on the scene. As the women kept on meeting and taking interest in our work, proper planning could be executed.
“Things have changed for the best for all of us. Earlier, villagers used to flee to Maharashtra and Kerala for work, but in the past three to four years, villagers aren’t going outside anymore,” Bairagi said.

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