NREGA’s Reality Check

Can India’s most ambitious legislation tackle poverty?

01 May 2010
60-year-old Pirbhu of Chhattarpur, Madhya Pradesh, is unemployed despite the promise of employment inscribed on the wall of his house.
© PRASHANTH VISHWANATHAN
60-year-old Pirbhu of Chhattarpur, Madhya Pradesh, is unemployed despite the promise of employment inscribed on the wall of his house.
© PRASHANTH VISHWANATHAN

AS DAWN BROKE ON 7 AUGUST 2009, Rekha Rani, a diminutive 38-year-old wife of a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, learned that her husband had been hospitalised. Grabbing her four-year-old daughter, she quietly left her brother’s house and hurried toward the railway station. Two days before, India had been celebrating Rakshabandhan—the Hindu festival celebrating the brother-sister relationship—and Rani had come to Banda, 55 kilometres from her home, to tie a raakhi, a sacred thread, on her brother’s wrist. On the train, she began cursing herself for leaving her husband alone. Passengers comforted her until she reached Jaitpur, a Dalit village in UP’s Mahoba district, late in the afternoon. Her fellow villagers wore gloomy looks. On the roadside, a white ambulance was parked, its doors open. Policemen stood on the mud street, a sea of people in the alleys around them. She shivered; her feet gave way. She slowed down and collapsed.

“I opened my eyes and found him dead,” said Rani, when we met in Jaitpur in January 2010. She is the mother of two daughters and two sons. Sukhlal, her husband, didn’t die of disease. On the morning of 7 August, he returned from his mustard field and bathed at the hand pump. Then he entered his room and drank a bottle of pesticide. An hour later, he was dead.

When I asked Rani why Sukhlal had killed himself, she said, “Drought, a 16-year-old daughter, and 60,000 rupees of debt.”

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    Mehboob Jeelani  is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University.

    Keywords: Dalits corruption poverty Mehboob Jeelani NREGA Sonia Gandhi Aruna Roy unemployment Jean Dreze Mahoba district CP Joshi rural India
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