Case studies

A Right to Work

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Cobbler Pradeep Ram was oppressed and exploited in his village of Prabatta in Bihar, because he was considered as belonging to a lower caste. Without a steady income, he struggled to feed his family. Though he applied for jobs under the government’s rural employment scheme MGNREGA, his applications were repeatedly ignored. With the support of PACS and partner CADAM he received sanction to level his land, and got paid for the work, which enabled him to cultivate vegetables. He continues to fight for the rights of other Mahadalits in his village.

Pradeep Ram shows the brinjal he has cultivated on his land.

Caste discrimination

Sitting in front of his house surrounded by leather sheets, torn slippers and the tools to stitch them, Pradeep Ram is busy working. He belongs to the Chamar caste, whose traditional occupation is cobbling. He lives with his wife and 7 children in Prabatta village, Bisfi block in the Madhubani district of Bihar, in eastern India.

To supplement his income, Pradeep Ram used to work for paltry wages as an agricultural labourer in the fields owned people of the dominant caste. His village is home to 350 people belonging to the Mahadalit (considered lowest on the social pyramid) community. They are oppressed in the name of their caste and have no knowledge of how to access government schemes and services. Owing to years of subjugation, these Mahadalits lack the unity and confidence to fight the skewed society in which they live.

No payment for work

In 2005, Pradeep Ram and others received their job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which guarantees rural households 100 days of paid work every year doing unskilled manual labour. But they were unaware of the process of getting employment and were simply summoned by the mukhiya (village head) whenever there was work. Pradeep says: ‘We would get only 2-15 days of work in a year. But we never got paid for most of the work we did.’

Pradeep owns 2 katha (1,440 sq. feet; 134 sq. metres)of land, inherited from his grandfather. But he had no money to level it for cultivation. A chance encounter with Raghunath Khuswaha, Block Coordinator from the Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM), a PACS partner, rekindled his hopes.

Joining the union

Raghunath conducted a meeting in Prabatta to explain to his fellow Mahadalits why it was important to unite to fight for their legitimate rights. He highlighted the significance of being a part of the All India MGNREGA Labour Union, a CBO formed by CADAM, which had been actively engaged in generating work demand through MGNREGA and motivating service providers to meet these demands. Pradeep and several others joined the union and began to discuss the kind of work that would be suitable for their village.

They found out that land development facilities under MGNREGA involve: construction of contour/graded bund; land levelling and shaping, reclamation of saline/alkaline land; construction of drainage channels; full packages of on-farm development; soil cover on waste land by transporting silt from nearby tank; and development of waste land/fallow land. On hearing this, he and 84 other villagers applied to carry out land-levelling work on their individual land and submitted their job applications to the panchayat rozgar sahayak (village-level livelihoods worker) who allocates roles under MGNREGA.

When they did not hear back after 15 days, they submitted their applications to the Department of Rural Development and the sub-divisional officer. Despite following up several times, they did not get work. This went on for two years, by the end of which Pradeep felt dejected. As a last resort, he wrote to the head of the MGNREGA programme stating that he would starve to death if they didn’t sanction his job application. 
The labour union and CADAM took up his case and held protests at block and district level, demanding work. Eventually, on 13 December 2013, the MGNREGA Block Programme officer wrote to the mukhiya and rozgar sevak, asking them to look into the matter. They sanctioned land levelling work for Pradeep only. He says: ‘I levelled my land with the help of my family. We worked for eight days and got Rs. 145 daily as wages.’

Villagers of Prabatta with newspaper clips documenting their fight.

Fighting for others’ rights 

Today, Pradeep is engaged in vegetable cultivation on his land. He has been cultivating different vegetables like brinjal, tomato, okra and cauliflower, and reaping profits. He says: ‘After leveling it, I made this land cultivable. The harvest has been good. I got Rs. 10,000 for selling cauliflower last year. Now I have planted brinjal in the field.’

Besides his work, Pradeep is an active member of AIMMU and secretary of the MGNREGA programme in his panchayat. He has been at the forefront of ensuring the remaining applications for land levelling are processed and that work is implemented in his village. Pradeep has also been working to get construction of latrines sanctioned under MGNREGA for the Mahadalits, for which every family is entitled to receive Rs. 10,000.  

Regarding discrimination in his village, Pradeep says that the mukhiya and others from the dominant caste seize all the MGNREGA work. They use construction machines to complete the work and pocket the payments meant for manual labour. ‘They don’t want us to earn through MGNREGA. They want all the assets in their hamlet alone,’ he argues. 

He continues: ‘Without MGNREGA work, people have no option but daily labour, which fetches them merely Rs. 30-60 a day. How will they feed their families with that? All we want is constant work. Through work, we can erase poverty, our village will develop, children can go to school and our future will be bright.’

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