2nd April 2008
No discussion about what Dwiji and I are doing in Sitapur can be complete without the inputs of Surbala and Reena. So on Wednesday, we set out for Mishrikh to meet them. Mishrikh is closer for both of them – coming to Sitapur would add another 30 km to their journey. Speaking of journeys, the economics of travel itself are worth considering – for a lot of villagers whose income barely crosses into 4 figures, the Rs. 40-50 that it takes for a day trip to Sitapur is prohibitive indeed. Mobile phones have transformed the landscape though and the practice of 'missed calls' is widely followed.
We got to Mishrikh just before noon and met Surbala on the way to the Dak Bungalow, our meeting place. Reena reached there soon after and a lively discussion ensued. One reason for meeting in a 'neutral' place was that we would be less interrupted by people coming by to pay their respects or with requests for assistance. But word gets around and sure enough, within a few minutes of Reena's arrival, some villagers from Pisawa block came by to update her on their efforts to get their job cards – though all workers are supposed to have one copy with them, their Pradhan wasn't releasing them. The more vocal among them were very clear on what they were doing and why and Richa said half-jokingly that some of them were becoming leaders in their own right. And rightly so – as they talked about later, during the early days of the December dharna, media coverage usually focussed on Richa Singh as the 'leader' of SKMS. But as the days went by, more and more people were mentioned as leaders, and more often than not, articles would say 'Mazdooron ne kahan' – the workers said.
Surbala and Reena talked about how Sangtin had built its strength on issues. “In some organizations,” said Surbala, “initial meetings are attended by 50 people and then the number goes down to 5 in a few years. In our meetings, we started with 5 people and the numbers gradually increased.” Reena talked about the canal issue – workers who cleaned the canal were promised foodgrains but none were distributed, even though on paper 1200 quintals of wheat had been distributed in Sitapur dt. With mobilization, labourers were able to get 58 quintals distributed in Mishrikh block. Now the work is focussed on NREGA – getting the job cards, applying for work and pressurizing for payment of wages or unemployment allowance.
Regional meetings are organized every month in Mishrikh and Pisawa blocks – these have been running for the past three years. At these meetings, SKMS asks that each village send only 2-3 representatives. Various issues are discussed – even personal or village-level arguments and fights. Certain issues start cropping up in a village or two. If they start coming up in more villages, then SKMS takes them on at an organizational level. That is how the canal issue and others have come up. Surbala and Reena expect that the ration card issue might come up in the next few months – this is of course not a new issue and thus in some ways is harder to fight. Ration shop owners have been holding on to ration cards and tampering with records for a very long time...
We also talked a bit about what kind of work can be done with NREGA funds. So far, the funds have mainly been used to clean canals and ponds, repair roads etc. Though it seems that the BDO of Pisawa block did use NREGA funds to level the fields of Dalit farmers – a worthy deed indeed.
But as with every other program, a huge chunk of money ends up in beaurocrats' pockets – the word on the streets is that 36% of the Rs. 111 crore allotted under NREGA to Sitapur dt. was immediately diverted. And the way 'babudom' is resisting making any payments, looks like their eye is on the remaining 64% as well.
We finally asked Reena and Surbala how they thought we could contribute and they turned the question around, asking us what our strengths are. Dwiji said his are cooking and a little bit of drama – so I guess we know what he'll be doing if there is another dharna!