Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Two steps forward, half a step... forward?

Immediately following the SKMS dharna, I was down with diarrhoea for 2 days. I had been fine during the summer and monsoon in Sitapur, so to be brought low in the winter was surprising. Thankfully, the dharna was over, so I could concentrate on rehydration and rest.

Things were better on the Sangathan front – account numbers were being collected for payment of the unemployment benefits and work had started in many villages. Of course, there are problems. In Mishrikh and Pisawa, the 3-day camp for job cards started off badly with the Block office asking for just the list of people who needed job cards. No application forms were available and no photographer was present. After a little wrangling, the process improved in Mishrikh over the next 2 days.

On another front, there were rumours that the BDOs who were to receive suspension orders had gone to court. And soon the news came out that they had indeed filed a writ petition in the Lucknow High Court, claiming conflict-of-interest by committee members, labourers incorrectly deemed eligible for benefits etc. The bench mainly ruled on whether the Commissioner at the Ministry of Rural Affairs was the responsible authority with powers to overrule decisions at the district level. They deemed that he was and asked him to review the additional documentation presented by the BDOs within 10 days. They also asked him to ensure that eligible families received the unemployment benefit as they were entitled to. This was a better outcome than many in the Sangathan and among its supporters had expected and the mood was upbeat.

At the village level, there are still problems with work not being made available, applications not being received etc. But some people, at least, have learnt to demand their rights. In one Gram Sabha, a few hundred people went to the Pradhan's house and demanded job cards. He was forced to bring out cards that had been in his keeping since 2006!

Finally, fights in villages continue. In some cases, they seem to be power plays between Sangathan members and those close to the Pradhan or older powerful families. Nerves are also a little frayed and people are reacting to every little thing that seems out of the ordinary. Until the unemployment allowance reaches the accounts of the beneficiaries, this state of affairs will most likely persist.

On another front, planning has started for a sammelan to be held on the 24th and 25th. Farmer-labourers from across Sitapur district and other areas will be invited to share their experiences, learn from SKMS' journey and plan for collective action to ensure a better life. There is talk of about 1500-2000 people attending from Mishrikh and Pisawa and ~500 from other blocks in the district. I think the numbers will be higher. At any rate, Sitapur city will witness a bigger gathering of the rural poor, without any party backing, than it has been accustomed to!

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