‘The Voices Of Change Are Echoing Today’
Story & Photos by Iqra Khan, Jaisinghnagar

Iqra Khan’s parents wanted her to pursue Science after her Boards. After all becoming an Engineer and bagging a corporate job was the easiest option in front of a high school student to taste success and affluence in life! But literature struck a different chord in the teenager’s heart. It made her feel more for the have nots. With time, her feelings grew and saw the birth of a strong, determined development worker in the alleys of Delhi. Flashy, stylish corporate lifestyle had its own glamour, but never more satiating than helping a few lives change. Her stints with a couple of Delhi based NGOs had already germinated seeds of development work in Iqra. In 2017, she joined a Masters course on development studies in the Azim Premji University.

It was at the same juncture, hundreds of villagers in a couple of remote villages of Madhya Pradesh, in their quest for a dignified life, stumbled against a bad squabble with their Sarpanch. And Iqra’s life would start revolving around them in just a couple of years’ time! Iqra tells the story.

PRADAN happened to me in 2019 during my campus interview at Azim Premji University. My Development Apprenticeship began in Jaisinghnagar team last July.

Kolhua and Lakhanwar are the two villages that come under my selected field area. Villagers there grow paddy and wheat that last less than six months a year. Rest they manage either by collecting tendu leaves and mahua flowers or by working as wage laborers. Absence of an all-weather road, a dilapidated bridge, very few toilets with no sewage system, irregularity of mid-day meals and restricted electricity connection are problems that plague their daily lives.

Way back in 2017, their Sarpanch, Diwakar Singh Kawar came to introduce MNREGA work by initiating construction of the primary school’s boundary wall in Kolhua. The villagers pointed out that reconstruction of the damaged road and the dilapidated bridge must be prioritized. The farmers were not being able to sell their farm-products to the market because of the bad road. And during monsoon crossing the stream becomes a nightmare.

You people have encroached upon the school land over the past several years, that is why you don’t want the boundary wall to be constructed”, retorted an adamant Diwakar.

Both the parties stood firm on their points. Possibility of progress stalled.

By the time I stepped in these villages, the focus of the MGNREGA work had shifted slightly from road construction to creation of land and water based assets. Increasing income generation options and enhancing the carrying capacities of their natural resources had become more important for them. The SHG members meticulously planned for the prospective assets. They wanted to summon a special Gram Sabha to get all the plans approved.

“But will the Sarpanch and the Secretary attend the meeting if we call the Sabha? Over the past two years, none of them have ever come to meet us” contemplated Roopta Singh and Ramwati Singh, two SHG members.

On their behalf, I decided to meet the officials in person to introduce the purpose behind the exercise and what assistance people were seeking from them. A series of calls and meetings followed. Thankfully the Secretary, Shailesh Singh Gupta agreed. But Sarpanch Kawar remained out of reach. 15 th of January 2020 was decided to be the date for the Gram Sabha where Kolhua-Lakhanwar villagers were to submit their plans for working towards creating land-water assets to boost their farm-based livelihoods.

15th of January was Makarsankrati. At dawn the villagers flocked around the stream nearby to worship the Surya deity; prepared the famous sesame laddus, but skipped their collective visit to fairs on account of the special Gram Sabha. The school premise, which was the venue of the Sabha, could barely accommodate another human being by noon. Their conviction to meet the Sarpanch and get the plan approved was clear by their massive turn-out. But the wait seemed to be never-ending. Apprehensions turned into reality – the office bearers did not show up. The hopeful faces turned into dismal ones. I tried to catch Diwakar, the Sarpanch over phone. This time he picked up the call.

“Whom are you asking me to talk to? Those villagers? They all are stupid; no work should take place in Kolhua and Lakhanwar because the people are stupid and those who entertain them are utter stupid as well”. Diwakar jeered and disconnected.

“Why is it that our time and money is not being valued?” retorted Ashok Bai Singh.

“Why should we be part of SHGs when our work is not given attention and government servants turn their back on us after elections?”

After hours of discussion and a push to recognize their rights as citizens, Roopta, Ramwati and Ashok Bai decided to lodge a formal complaint at the Block office.

The next day, a large group of women, determined in their resolve, arrived at the block office. Ashok Bai, Roopta, Ramwati, and Kusum Singh lead the rally with unflinching courage and confidence. Women from various age categories walked. The air echoed with the slogans raised highlighting the poor performances of the Sarpanch and the Secretary.

The rally caught every onlooker’s attention. At the Block office, they waited for several hours to meet the block officials. None came out. The women urged the MNREGA Administrative Officer (AO) to listen to their plea. The letter signed by the villagers and list of collective and individual plans prepared for the INRM were placed in front of him. The officer started pointing out flaws in the planning and expressed apprehension about whether it can at all be implemented, thus leaving Ashok and Ramwati unnerved. So far, I was standing at a distance. But I thought it was time for me to intervene.

“Yes, we all know that not every plan will receive sanction, but the relevant plan related to jan, jangal and zameen should be approved in Gram Sabha which has not happened only because of the utmost non-cooperation of the Sarpanch and the Secretary.”

After a few exchanges the AO summoned Shailesh, the Secretary. Shailesh tried to hold the fort in absence of the Sarpanch. But the relentless questions raised by the AO and the women made him fumble. It was clear that he did not have a valid answer to any of those. The AO asked the women to submit the plan list to Shailesh and simultaneously asked him to give a formal approval on it along with the Sarpanch.

The resolute women not only handed over the list but also left the voice of accountability echoed in the ears of those who are elected by the people and are supposed to work for the people. As the crowd dispersed, the air enveloping the villagers was more hopeful for a better future, than ever.

Iqra’s parents will be happy to know that her decision of not pursuing Engineering and opting for a corporate life has not gone into vain. Today, as this story gets published, villagers of Kolhua and Lakhanwar are starting the work on their land! Sarpanch Diwakar Kawar has sanctioned Rs. 1,74,000 for their work on the 6th of February!