Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Monthly round-up

10th - 12th April 2008

On the 9th, Dwiji and I went to Vikas Bhavan and found not a Pradhan in sight. Later, we found out that the protest had been called off that morning itself. Why, we did not know. Most likely they felt that they were not prepared enough...

On the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th of every month, regional meetings are held by SKMS for clusters of ~15 villages। On Thursday, Dwiji and I headed to the first one, in the village of Aant. Richa could only stay for a short while as she had to attend the next meeting of the enquiry committee. She updated the group on the committee's work, the Pradhan Sangh's demands and the newspaper reports – Dainik Jagaran, which is more widely read in the villages, had also come out with an article on the issue.

The meeting was attended by about 30 people. More kept trickling in even though I thought we were late at noon – time is more flexible here! The first issue that was discussed was the BPL (Below Poverty Level) list. A survey of households had been carried out in the past few months where points were assigned based on income, land holdings and other assets, education of family members, appliances such as gas cylinders in the house etc. The list of those who had upto 52 points would be displayed in a public place in each Gram Sabha around the 16th. There was a lot of discussion about what needed to be done if the list was not available or if certain names were missing from the list etc. Most of the attendees in this meeting would qualify for BPL and yet were unaware of the benefits of the card.

Other topics of discussion included updates on NREGA and ensuring that job cards were in the hands of labourers themselves. As mentioned earlier, this is easier said than done and tactics for getting them back from the Pradhan or secretary were discussed. Payments on labour already done are also notoriously slow in arriving – usually the reason cited is that the funds haven't arrived in the village account yet. But the increasing awareness and mobilization of villagers is having an effect – work available this past year (2007-08) was much more than what was available the year before when NREGA was introduced.

An ongoing concern of the core members of SKMS is the mobilization and understanding at the village level. A lot of villagers join in SKMS activities when it is beneficial for them but step back during confrontations with the Pradhan or Block officials etc. This is a burden for the more loyal SKMS members. One member whose village is strongly mobilized, inspite of the challenges they face, stood up to share his experiences and motivate the rest.

As always, the meeting started and ended with a song. Reena's rendition of 'Bol ari oh dharti bol' is truly resounding!

We were to stay at Surbala's home overnight – she lives close to Qutubnagar, the site of the second meeting. To get to her house, we had to take a 'theliya' (a cart pulled by a cyclist) to the main road, then get a 'Ganesh' tempo (so named because of its long front – Dwiji says similar tempos are called 'Garuda' tempos in Karnataka) and then walk a kilometre through wheat fields. The fields stretched as far as the eye could see. This close to harvest, the stalks were long and the seeds had grown to full size. A few km. up the road, fields had greatly benefited from irrigation provided by the newly rejuvenated canal that SKMS had fought so hard for.

Surbala and her family can be considered well-off in their village's context – they have a 'pukka makaan' – a house with a cement roof as opposed to a thatched one, they have a gas cylinder and have actually managed to increase their land holdings (by just a few bighas, albeit). Yet, Surbala has had to fight hard for 'unnecessary' expenses such as her daughter's education. As she put it, she started working in order to have a stronger voice in directing her family finances.

As I've often experienced in villages, Surbala's hospitality was at the 'Athithi devobhava' – guest is god – level, to the extent of fanning us! We had to be quite firm and insist on helping her rather than have her wait upon us hand and foot.

One neat use of technology in Surbala's house – a solar panel she had purchased for a solar lantern is now being used to charge mobile phones. We had heard earlier that some villagers spend as much as half a day traveling to a nearby electrified town to charge their phone – this is a much more elegant solution. We started wondering if a laptop could be charged this way as well – will give it a shot.

The next day, we went to Qutubnagar for the second regional meeting. The group here seemed a lot more motivated and informed – SKMS had been working in this area longer and it shows. There were also a lot more arguments! As Richa had told us earlier, these meetings serve not only the purpose of sharing information but also allow disagreements to be aired out and resolved as much as possible.

The heat is beginning to build up in this part of the world – we had to move the meeting to a semi-closed space to escape the scorching loo outside.

After the meeting, we were besieged by invitations to stay overnight, have refreshments etc. etc. and had to employ the art of respectful declining. We headed back to Sitapur that night.

For the Pishawa meeting on the 12th, I was dreading the jeep-tempo-theliya travel of past days when an alternative idea struck. Richa wasn't using her scooter that day, so we borrowed it for the day. To think that I am now actually looking forward to traveling on a 2-wheeler! I had complained about it nonstop during my earlier stints in Bangalore, when Dwiji was taking me around the city on one. But priorities change, I guess – especially in the face of back-breaking travel in vehicles stuffed in defiance of space and structure!

In Pishawa, the dynamics are yet again different. This group had come together on the issue of NREGA and had approached SKMS for help. So, while they are highly motivated, there was a need felt for more mobilizing and perspective-building activities. Meetings in 3 villages in the Pishawa area were planned for 19th - 21st April an we planned to attend tham as well. For now, we decided we had earned some rest and headed back to Sitapur.

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