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July 29th, 2013

Women and development in India: Slow progress in West Bengal

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Editor

July 29th, 2013

Women and development in India: Slow progress in West Bengal

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In this special three-part series, the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows report from the field about what development means to women in some of the most remote parts of India. What is the impact of government programmes on the day-to-day lives of the people they are supposed to help? The first account in this series is of Kajalmani Soren in Lalgarh, West Bengal. Hailing from a family of landless labourers, she describes her experience with the National Rural Health Mission, the Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Public Distribution System. This post first appeared on the Ideas for India blog.  

She sits still on the wooden bench, with a calm disposition, hardly bothered about the heat outside. It is midday and the occasional passenger bus stops outside the Satpati Health Sub Centre where Kajalmani Soren waits patiently for her right wrist to be X-rayed.

Soren, aged about 50 years old, belongs to Chandabila village in the Dharampur Gram Panchayat of Lalgarh, a bastion of the Maoist movement between 2008 and 2010 in West Bengal. In the summer of 2010, some of her neighbours were killed by the Maoist cadres on allegations of being police informers. The Maoist movement has now lost its steam and a stream of development initiatives have been started by both the central and state governments in ‘Jungle Mahal’, an oft-mentioned name for these remote tribal areas spread among the thick cover of Sal, Piyal and Mohul forests.

“Our daily lives are tough but we try to live through our hardships. Being landless agricultural labourers, (we) survive on the money received from the agri-labour work done in the area and sometimes in other villages”, says Soren while describing how she had to borrow money from others in the village to marry off her daughter a decade ago. While the daughter now visits with her children, they are still paying off the loan in occasional installments. Over the last decade the only visible change that Soren observes is of rural connectivity. “Before my daughter’s marriage, even visiting the Block Office at Lalgarh [18 kilometres away] for any need was beyond our imagination. Now we even have motor bikes and big cars entering our village”, she says slowly, though her family does not own a bicycle.

While having a handful of muri (puffed rice), Soren’s only meal since morning, she regrets having married off her daughter at the tender age of 15. She readily blames it on her ignorance and illiteracy. In an act of redemption, she now wants to make sure that her daughter does not repeat her mistake. “My granddaughters go to school, eat the mid-day meal”, she says elatedly.

Meanwhile the X-ray technician at the Mobile Medical Camp is ready, so Soren lies down on the bench, hesitant initially. Ask her why and she says with embarrassment, “I have never done any photo before”. Her only way to reach a doctor is to travel to the nearest Health Sub Centre at Dharampur, four kilometres away from her village. For Soren and most others in the nearby villages, a private village doctor, Mahato, as he is called, is the only hope.

An initiative under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Mobile Medical Camps in ‘Jungle Mahal’ have been operating every week at selected Gram Panchyats in these far-flung areas to provide basic access to curative and diagnostic treatment to the large tribal population. Soren was unaware of these camps until her brother-in-law Kunaram Murmu drove her down to this centre at the adjoining block Salboni for a check-up. As Soren speaks Santali and just understands some Bangla, Murmu has been translating her words.

We have some more time while the X-ray report is being generated. She asks me about the process of receiving Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) wages on time and I fumble for answers. More queries reveal that although her household has an MGNREGA Job Card, she has worked for only six days over the past few years. “I have to look after the few cows and hens that are our only stable source of income”, she explains. Her husband goes to work only when “he is asked to join work at a job-site”, the preferred practice in most of these remote areas. Soren admits there has been an increase in the household’s overall income with MGNREGA work, but says that it is quite irregular. I inform her about the increase in MGNREGA wages from April 2013, but it does not seem to interest her much.

I then ask her about her participation in Gram Sabhas. She looks at me strangely, seemingly oblivious of the term. “The community is quite introverted and hardly anyone expresses anything to the panchayat representatives”, explains Murmu, a social worker and community organiser. I explain to Soren the importance of communicating demands and needs to the panchayat functionaries. She silently nods her head.

Her X-ray report arrives; there is a small ligament tear on her right wrist. She takes the medicines, listens to the doctor’s advice and then silently walks away. While her brother-in-law moves ahead towards the parked motor bike, I join her on the 100-metre stretch. I ask her about food supplies under the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. Suddenly her face lights up and she signals with her fingers. I decipher the code: it’s the two rupees per kilogramme of rice scheme that is provided to all BPL families in ‘Jungle Mahal’. “They also receive kerosene, flour and oil at the PDS. But it’s the rice that matters to them”, adds Murmu.

Soren owns neither a TV nor a radio. Returning from this rare venture into the outside world, she will get back to the fields to care for the cows. At day break, she may sit down and separate the small pebbles from the rice and lentils to be cooked for dinner. Murmu urges me to visit Soren’s village some time. I nod in consent and wish Soren a quick recovery from the wrist pain. She smiles faintly and says that next time a panchayat member visits her village she will voice her needs and demands.

Murmu’s motorbike takes the road towards Lalgarh while a small group from the Central Reserve Police Force in olive fatigues and black bandanas patrols the roadside. At present, there is peace in ‘Jungle Mahal’, but until Soren and others of her ilk are made active participants in the process of development, the road ahead is likely to be difficult.

On Wednesday, read about Bahrin Bhuyinya’s life in Jharkhand, and her views on Naxalism and the changing role of women in the village community.

Arindam Banerjee is a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow with the Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India. He is currently working in Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal where he works in the areas of development and participatory communication, MGNREGA impact analysis and sustainable eco-tourism.

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