Pranav P. Das
For Somra Oraon, 41, from Kumhariya Panchayat in Gumla district of Jharkhand, his farm is his life. He had lived off the paddy and a few other traditional crops he managed to cultivate on it, given his meagre resources. While the monsoon months were always hectic, for the rest of the year work was irregular at best.
Somra always thought of himself as a progressive man. Being a matriculate, he was keen on providing his five children with a good education so that they could have a better life than he did. But for that to happen, he needed additional income. How was he to get it from a small landholding like his? This was the question that Somra grappled with for many years. Finally, he realised that it could happen only if he was able to diversify his cropping pattern and start tilling a larger area of land. Of course, this was easier said than done. For irrigation, the majority of the farmers in his remote Dhangaon village - where electricity was irregular and the roads had broken down - were either dependent on the rains or on some old wells in the area. These few water resources were clearly insufficient to support multiple crops. But something unexpectedly happened that changed the entire scenario: The implementation of the government's flag ship programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in this region. Reveals Somra, "I had wanted to produce a combination of crops: Wheat, maize, peanuts, tomatoes, brinjal, cauliflower and other vegetables. But because of water unavailability, a large part of my land remained barren until the end of 2010. That was when I found out that MGNREGA could not just provide employment to me and my fellow villagers but also be a means to get a well dug on my land."
Here's how Somra turned his dream project into a reality. "I started off by filing a written application to dig a well near my farmland with the help of a representative of Naya Savera Vikas Kendra (NSVK, a local non-government organisation that works on rights, justice and livelihood issues in Jharkhand). Once the Gram Sabha gave the go-ahead, work began in January 2011 and was completed by June.
Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)
All those, including me, who had worked to dig the well got remuneration under MGNREGA. Now that the well is dug, I have plenty of water to grow any crop or vegetable I feel like," he says with a broad smile. Somra has built his home near the field so it's easy for his mother and wife, Nagiya Devi, 35, to help out on the farm whenever they can spare time from their household chores. His two sons and two daughters too chip in when they are back from school. His plot of land, including the once barren half, is now a thriving farm that produces a good harvest of green vegetables, which Somra loads on to his own two-wheeler and sells in nearby markets.
Pleased with this outcome, Somra is now deploying newer farming techniques on his land. He elaborates, "I used traditional seeds earlier, but this time I have cultivated hybrid varieties. Let's see. If the yield is good, I should get even higher returns." The new well has not just benefited him personally, it has proved a boon for others in the village and become a symbol of change. Inspired by him, several farmers in Dhangaon and its neighbouring villages are looking for similar opportunities that provide them not only with work during the non-farming period but provide them with permanent assets. In fact, this shift in perceiving MGNREGA is taking place all over the country. Earlier it was seen more as a source of dole than anything else. Today, more and more beneficiaries have come to regard it as a means of employment and asset creation with multiplier effects. For instance, apart from the marked reduction in poverty levels, there has been a decline in distress migration from the region. Wells, ponds, brick roads, trenches for water harvesting - infrastructure created as part of MGNREGA work - are now valuable additions in villages once weighed down by poverty and decline.
This transition has been captured during social audits conducted as part of the ongoing MGNREGA Abhiyan, a campaign organised by Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) in partnership with various civil society partners across Bihar and Jharkhand. Slated to conclude by February 2013, the Abhiyan focuses on ensuring that socially excluded groups are able to access rights and entitlements under the rural jobs scheme.
In another village, Bangru, in Kumhariya Panchayat, Mura Khariya - like Somra Oraon - is now being widely appreciated for having taken the initiative to get a well dug on his farm in the summer of 2012. Elaborates Mura, "Most farmers here grow paddy and all of us were dependent on the rains to irrigate our fields. But this year, even though the monsoon was delayed, none of us was late in our sowing. It was my new well that had made all the difference and it has plenty of water for everyone." Grateful to Mura, the people of Bangru wanted to gift him a pair of oxen, a gesture he politely declined.
Clad in a the garments of a hard-working farmer, an ordinary 'lungi' paired with a 'baniyan' (vest), this father of five reveals that the idea of digging a well on his farm as part of MGNREGA work was first proposed during a Gram Sabha meeting. "Today, other farmers too are looking forward to getting wells dug near their fields. Everyone now realises this double benefit we get from MGNREGA - wages and stable assets," he adds.
Interestingly, in Jharkhand, digging wells forms 90 per cent of the work being undertaken under the rural employment intervention. Reveals Gurjeet Singh, a MGNREGA Ombudsman who monitors the implementation of the scheme in the state, "Digging wells has emerged as the top priority for the farming community. Creating ponds, leveling land, building all weather roads and constructing check dams comprise only 10 per cent of the MGRNEGA work done here."
These days, everyone aspires for a well near his or her farm. Vishwanath Pahan, 46, who had helped in digging Somra Oraon's well months ago, now hopes to get one closer to his field. He supports his family of five with the modest earnings from his farm and now wants to branch out into cultivating cash crops and vegetables. "Most of us in this panchayat have job cards and we all want employment under MGNREGA. If the government is successful in providing jobs for everyone, we could change the face of our village. More work means more money. The increased wages will help us to buy seeds and fertilizers, which translates into increased yields," he observes.
The NSVK field workers are working to reach out to people like Vishwanath by bringing them timely information and helping them access government interventions like MGNREGA. It all begins by creating a demand for work and then ensuring that this work, in turn, results in infrastructure that helps fulfill dreams for a more prosperous future.