The final narrative in this three-part series on what development means for women in India comes from Keonjhar in Odisha. Despite facing deprivation and setbacks early in life, Basanti Naik today successfully oversees the implementation of MGNREGA projects in her village. Her life is testament to the positive impact government-run programmes can have. But it is also a reminder that thousands of women have yet to enjoy similar success. This post first appeared on the Ideas for India blog.
Basanti Naik came to Asanamani village in the Keonjhar District of Odisha 20 years ago, when she married Bidyadhar Naik at the age of 16. Despite being the third daughter of a farmer, she had completed her high school education. As a result, this 36-year-old mother of three children is today a successful Gram Snajojak (the person tasked with overseeing the execution of MGNREGA projects at the village level) and has overseen the implementation of three projects under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA).
Naik’s daily routine is not very different from that of any other working woman, except that she lives in one of the most remote districts in India. She gets up early in the morning, finishes her household chores of cooking food, sending children to school, cleaning etc., and walks towards the work site in her village with the muster roll ready at hand.
We sat on the veranda of her house as she recalled the past. She recalls that when she got married her husband was jobless and farming was their only source of livelihood. They frequently went to bed on an empty stomach. The entire village led a similar life of deprivation. There was neither a road nor proper drinking water in the village. A decade ago there was also no healthcare facility in the village or panchayat. People would travel 20 kilometres to access basic health care. Malaria and diarrhoea were common and caused many deaths.
But, according to Naik, things are now changing for the better as a number of government schemes have been implemented at the grassroots in Keonjhar. Naik is very appreciative of initiatives such as the Janani Express, which has made institutional deliveries much more common. Thanks to the presence of Anganwadi workers, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANM), basic medical facilities have reached the village. Villagers are also becoming more conscious of their health and entitlement. The distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLIN) has also been a highly effective way to protect families from malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Another important development for the village has been the emergence of a market place in nearby Pipilia, which includes a medicine shop. Naik believes in the importance of education, and overcame many impediments in her life to complete high school. She is happy that secondary education has become more accessible to her children due to the presence of a school near her village. Although she is happy with the changes in the education sector in the village, she is concerned about the deteriorating quality of education. She blames both the teachers as well as students. She is worried about the blatant misuse of mobile phones among young children, which she thinks is a distraction. But she also accepts the fact that due to the ready availability of information, children are becoming more aware. While she may not have a lot of information on the various options after secondary education, she dreams that her children will be able to graduate from college.
Naik states that the real game-changer has been the availability of work near the village. Earlier there was no source of revenue other than farm activities, and people were generally idle in the non-productive seasons. The advent of schemes like MGNREGA, Total Sanitation Campaign, Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY), and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) has greatly increased the amount of work available in the village. Interventions by NGOs have also opened up job opportunities.
Naik works as a Gram Snajojak in MGNREGA projects. Although there have been issues such as delayed payments, she believes that this work can actually improve the quality of her life. When asked whether MGNREGA has helped her, she nodded her head and showed me a sari that cost 300 rupees. This is a significant change in status as she has never bought a sari that cost more than 100 rupees before. The thatched house belonging to her family is now covered with tubular tiles, and brick walls have taken the place of mud ones due to extra income that has flown in. In her words, “The availability of 100 days of work and the option to create assets in the village is a great boost to rural life. When one develops their own land and gets paid for it – it can’t get any better than that.”
Naik now earns 876 rupees per week from MGNREGA. The Public Distribution System (PDS) has taken care of food security to a great extent and this gives her the liberty to think about other aspects of life. Vegetables and cereals have become a regular item in the menu of the family, which was earlier restricted to water, rice and potato or pickles. The children get new clothes on festivals and have their own books and cycles.
The availability of work and the consequent hike in income have changed Naik’s social status. She now commands respect in the village and controls household decisions. She takes part in village planning and Gram Sabhas. The Sarpanch and Gram Rojgar Sevak (GRS) resolve her work-related issues in a timely fashion.
Naik now also has a mobile phone that she uses to contact the block officials. Although the block staff was callous in the beginning, their attitude towards her has changed. The junior engineer comes to the work site for measurement, when contacted, which has reduced payment delays in the village. She is extremely happy about the introduction of direct fund transfers of MGNREGA money to the card holder’s account. This has eradicated the cheque payment system, which was a major reason for delayed payments. She feels that the availability of the banking system has helped people in many ways. People no longer have to walk long distances to withdraw money, only to return empty handed due to long lines.
Inspired by her, many women who were earlier reluctant to come to work are now taking part in MGNREGA works. Some women work for just a week or two to get some cash for a specific purpose. This is a positive, according to Naik, and should be viewed as an indicator of how women have started planning for things beyond just the basic minimum needs of a household.
Naik is also a member of the Vishwa Matarini Self Help Group (SHG). The group has accumulated more than 20,000 rupees in savings. Participation in the group has increased the confidence of the members as they are assured of getting help in their time of need. The SHG is also planning to make bricks and supply them to Indira Awaas Yojana beneficiaries. The women are confident of profiting from this activity. They are planning to get the group graded through the state National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) team and accessing credit, which will open up more avenues for them.
Looking ahead, Naik is adamant that her daughter will not marry until she learns to take care of herself. She believes that both her sons will complete college and get decent jobs. She wants more and more people to undertake 100 days of work under MGNREGA so that they can avail more benefits. She believes that once they finish the ongoing rain water management project, the productivity of the fields will increase as the land will be able to retain more water and the groundwater will be replenished. She is confident that the overall situation is going to improve in the near future. She has faith in the system. Although the village is yet to be electrified, she believes their future is going to be brighter.
Although Naik’s story is testament to the success of government-run programmes, there are still thousands of women waiting to enjoy similar success. Her trajectory is a reminder that well-crafted schemes are only as good as their implementation.
Chandrasekhar Bhuyan is a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow under the Ministry of Rural Development.