New Delhi, March 26 (IANS/ 101Reporters) On a humid September day in Shikaripara village in Jharkhand’s Dumka district, Anita Dasi (37) was busy uploading data on a white phablet. Her colleague, Daisy Lily Murnu (35), checked registers at the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) office.
The office itself seemed in need of urgent renovation. A damp odour filled the air, the drab walls pockmarked with spiderwebs and non-functional sockets. Yet, Dasi and Murnu powered through their usual workday, prioritising others’ grievances over theirs, with their jobs as employees of the MGNREGA Sahayta Kendra (help centre) – or as they referred to themselves, ‘Sahayta Kendra Didis’ (Help Centre Sisters).
Sahayta Kendras are centres that serve as a bridge between civilians and government officials, helping people be aware of and assert their rights, especially with regard to MGNREGA. While legal agreements in place lay down the government’s responsibilities towards these help centres, the two women have claimed that they largely work independently, without the logistical allowances they were promised.
“We work for the marginalised and poor. Our mission is to raise public awareness about MGNREGA’s standards,” Dasi told 101Reporters. “For instance, if someone has a problem with their wages, they may hesitate to take action because they may be unaware of their rights. So we help them understand the issue and guide them.”
There are three stages to a Sahayak Didi’s work. First, she informs people about their legal entitlements and accountability mechanisms. Second, she helps workers fill out an application form with this information and assemble supporting evidence, such as workers’ testimonies, dated receipts, etc, and submit the form to the local government. Third, she follows up on these applications.
Expanding scope of help
While Sahayta Kendras most commonly deal with issues centred around MGNREGA, volunteers like Dasi and Murnu help assist with various other government interactions.
“In my town, beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana [an Indian government initiative aimed at providing affordable housing to the urban poor] received Rs 1,20,000 in four instalments. However, they were unaware of their entitlement to an additional Rs 20,000 for labour costs. They applied for it only after we told them about it,” Dasi pointed out.
Sulekha Mal, a 45-year-old pahariya tribal woman, is among the many who benefited from Sahahyak Didis.
“As an ailing woman, gathering wood from the forest for cooking was quite difficult,” she told 101Reporters. “When I approached the concerned authorities, they said they didn’t have a gas link available. I informed Didi, who then helped me access gas stoves through the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana [an Indian government scheme that provides LPG connections to women from families below the poverty line].”
Murnu recalled an instance where she took on the block office and brought to light the fraudulent activities of a gram rojgar sewak (rural employment officer), who wasn’t providing employment to labourers.
“We complained to the block division officer, and he was made to pay a fine, after which he facilitated his own transfer because he realised we wouldn’t allow him to do any wrong,” she chuckled.
If an individual doesn’t receive a requested job within 15 days of application, they are eligible for unemployment benefits. For the first 30 days, at least one-fourth of the minimum wage must be paid, followed by half the minimum sum. In August 2017, because of these Sahayak Didis, 111 workers in the districts of Lohardaga, Gumla, Dumka, West Singhbhum and Godda in Jharkhand received a total of Rs 2,15,339 in unemployment benefits.
Fighting the system from within
Dozens of people have benefited from the assistance of these Sahayak Didis, but it’s been no easy feat for them. From dealing with the wrath of powerful, corrupt government officials to keeping up with unorganised Gram Sabha meetings and fighting nepotism in elections, they have often had to tackle the same problems that they usually seek to help others with.
For instance, when Dasi called for fair elections in response to influential people choosing mukhiyas (village heads) from their own family, she was attacked and called a “witch who ate her husband and would eat you as well”.
“We’re NREGA Sahyata Kendra volunteers who advocate for the masses, but at times, us sahayaks have to advocate for our own rights, as well,” she said, with Murnu nodding in agreement and adding, “Sometimes, government officials reprimand us for bringing labourers’ problems to them.”
For the past year and and a half, the volunteers have been waiting for their three-year Memorandum of Understanding – signed on August 2, 2017 with Jharkhand’s Rural Development Department – to be renewed. The department is meant to empower underprivileged women and members of vulnerable communities and groups in the state, by organising and capacitating local groups and generating sustainable livelihoods. The MoU also clearly states the government’s responsibility towards Sahayta Kendras.
“According to the MoU, we should receive a monthly financial aid of Rs 2,000 plus other allowances, like for internet costs, but we continue to work without it. All we have is a phablet. The affidavit was forwarded to senior officials, but they are delaying it, using the pandemic as an excuse,” Dasi told 101Reporters.
Interrupted, inadequate training
In the past, Sahayak Didis had hoped to receive training to better reach those that need their help. But the pandemic interrupted these government workshops, which have largely been exclusionary.
“If the government gives us guidelines in English, we return them and ask for a Hindi translation,” Dasi said, who wasn’t able to complete her education as she was married at 14. However, she boasts of superior Hindi writing and reading skills.
“Earlier, we went to Dumka city for some training workshops, but these, too, were not held after the pandemic broke out. The dada [associate] from PRADAN [an NGO] helped us learn new things, and we take advice from him in complicated situations.”
PRADAN – Professional Assistance for Development Action – is a well-known NGO that’s focussed on alleviating large-scale rural poverty. Supported by the Ikea Foundation, it’s been instrumental in identifying members who can lead the way in showing how Sahayta Kendras can support the vulnerable.
“The idea was to create awareness among villagers about their existing rights and entitlements and also bridge the gap between the beneficiaries and administration,” said Anup Das, project executive at the organisation.
It was following various trainings organised by PRADAN, which also introduced these women to block and district authorities, that Sahayak Didis expanded their work beyond the scope of MGNREGA.
“We decided to look into different rights like ration, pension and other schemes targeted at supporting women,” added Dasi.
Supporting women, acknowledging the fair intentions of Sahayta Kendras and the challenges they face, Dasi and Murnu continue to work, motivated by their passion to help others. As Dasi said, “We’ve created a sense of trust among villagers, and they respect us because we function as a bridge between them and government authorities. What would they think if we abandoned this work? We’re not doing this for the money; we’re doing it for the poor and marginalised.”
(The author is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)