Case studies

Finding a Way to Inclusion

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As a disabled woman, Barna Mahali was unable to share many of the benefits received by her fellow villagers in Sanramalai village, in Sundergarh district of Odisha, in eastern India.  She was not included in local women’s groups or village meetings, had no land title, and spent three decades taking work wherever she could, for whatever wages her employers decided to pay. However, with support from PACS and partner organisation DISHA, Barna gained a respected role providing drinking water and childcare and has taken up her rightful place in the community.

Brana with the goats she has bought with her MGNREGA wages.

Exclusion from community activities

The residents of Sanramalai village, Sundargarh  district of Odisha, in eastern India, work as labourers during periods of hectic agricultural activity, and depend on forest produce to sustain them through long idle periods. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has proved a blessing to this community, assuring them of at least 100 days of work every year. Furthermore, in 2011, most of the villagers received titles (pattas) to land allotted by the revenue department, and are able to supplement their income by farming or raising livestock. The only one left out of the benefits was Barna Mahali, a 65-year-old widow.

‘My husband died around 30 years ago and I had to feed, clothe and look after our five children,’ Barna explains. ‘At the time, my three girls and two boys were minors, and while my fellow villagers did not knowingly ignore me, they did not have the means to help me.’

Women were not allowed to participate in village meetings, and without a husband to represent her, Barna lost out on the benefits available to her from government housing, land and livelihood schemes. She says: ‘I did not have a patta and hence could not get a job card along with the rest of the villagers. This forced me to get work wherever I could and for whatever amount my employers wanted to pay me.’

For 30 years, Barna worked as a labourer whenever work was available and collected forest produce to make a living. When her children moved on to have families of their own, Barna had nothing to fall back on and no means of earning a livelihood in her old age. She was never part of women’s groups in the village. ‘The others never included me in their work because of the disability in my leg and eye,’ she says. ‘I had to work for lower wages on other people’s farms. Women in my village went out in a group to work and they got more money than me. I always wanted to go with them to work.’

Identifying vulnerable people

When PACSs CSO partner, the Development Institute for Scientific Research, Health and Agriculture (DISHA), surveyed the village and prepared a micro-plan, Barna was identified as the most vulnerable person in the village. DISHA Coordinator Sheik Abdullah says: ‘Her fellow villagers did not want her to get the benefits of national rural employment guarantees without performing active physical labour, and it was only after we organised a number of awareness programme on the guidelines of MGNREGA, clearly explaining the crucial role a widow plays as caretaker of children in the programme, that they agreed to cooperate.’ 

Barna works at her home in Sanramalai village in Odisha.

The sarpanch (village head) set the ball rolling by issuing a job card in Barna’s name, and with DISHA’s guidance, she built a shed, distributed water and food, and took care of local children while their parents were working. He says: ‘The others realised she was playing a vital role in the scheme because now they could concentrate solely on the job and not on other related activities. She gained their respect with her sincerity and dedication to her duties.’ In appreciation, the villagers included Barna in the list of applicants for individual forest rights and ensured that she received a new home under Indira Awas Yojana (a housing programme created by the Indian government). 

Equal wages and a role in the community

After three decades of being ignored by the community, Barna has now taken her rightful place within it. She now has 100 days of work a year under MGNREGA. With the wages and through benefits under other government schemes, she has been able to get six goats and two cows. Life has definitely taken a turn for the better for this courageous woman. Barna thanks DISHA and the Sarpanch for her good fortune. 

She concludes: ‘It is only because team DISHA and the sarpanch interceded on my behalf and explained the situation to the others that I am able to work alongside them for equal wages as a drinking water provider and a caretaker for their children.’  

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