Sunday, July 25, 2010

NREGA Helpline- Spreading the Word

The best plans are spontaneous, decided without superfluous analysis. It was with this attitude that we accepted Shankar Singh's invitation to do village outreach on a newly created provision. Shankar Singh is part of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the NGO that spearheaded the Right to Information movement culminating in a nation-wide act. MKSS was in Bhilwara today, inaugurating the start of a NREGA helpline. By dialing 1077 on a phone, a NREGA worker can now register his/her complaint regarding the employment guarantee scheme. The complaint will be voice recorded on a computer, an instant email will be sent to the BDO (Block Development Officer), and the complainant will receive a 'complaint number'. On paper, the NREGA already had provisions for a helpline, but MKSS discovered the hollowness of this promise; The number didn't exist, no one manned the phones, and every complaint had to go through a complex web of individuals. The new helpline's email and voice-recorded features reduce some of that complexity while creating a permanent record of the complaint.

And so the outreaching began. Three jeeps went off in different parts of rural Bhilwara, passing out fuscia and lemon-yellow pamphlets describing this new helpline. Nikhil and I joined the jeep with Shankarji. We were stuffed in the backseat along with a diverse group of youth- Varsha, MKSS intern from Kerala; a Gujrati second year MSW student; and Mahadev and Ramesh, volunteers from nearby Shahpura. We stopped by NREGA sites and populated centres like Baneda's busstand, talking to individuals and passing out pamphlets. Sometimes, the individual began venting complaints to us. "I still haven't received my wages from the past two years!" Sometimes, the villager called the helpline right then and there; one elderly man ventured to curse out his frustration at the poor individual taking the call.

The weather was hot and humid, but I enjoyed every minute of jeep-bonding-with-peers and interacting with strangers who seemed most eager to get a hold of the papers we were distributing. It was a refreshing change from the students at UT who would usually shun eye contact while I attempted to hand them a brochure on Bhopal. After pamphleteering in 7 areas we were back in Bhilwara city around 4 pm. Nikhil had a practice CAT exam scheduled for tomorrow in Jaipur, We had two choices before us- go back to SKK or take a bus to Jaipur. Like I said, the best plans are spontaneous. Jaipur, here we come!

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