It was a death that could have been avoided. A landless labourer,Kishen Singh (45),died on Christmas day after going without food for five days in this south Rajasthan village. Neither he nor his wife Ganga,a job card holder under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme,knew that they could demand work or avail unemployment benefits as a right under the NREGA.
Champakheda is only 11 km off the Chittorgarh-Udaipur highway,and 75 km from Bhilwara where a social audit of NREGA in October was carried out by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). But no information percolated to Kishen Singhs village an occasional wall painting extolling NREGA benefits can be seen on the highway,but none in Champakheda.
After Singhs death,district and state government authorities have been claiming that he died of tuberculosis,not starvation. But none denies that his family of six his wife,three married children and another three below the age of 12 went without food for five days. The children bank on mid-day meals they get in the government school.
It was a group of women from a neighbouring village who noticed the familys condition while working with Ganga late in November. We were cutting grass in a nearby village and for three days noticed that Ganga had nothing to eat. We used to share food with her everyday. We later told an NGO about her condition and they gave the family 10 kg of flour, said Mangi Bai of Bhilon-ka-Kheda village. She said the family had no food even the day Singh died and that village women contributed food and gave them 14 kg of flour.
Khemraj Chowdhary,who gave the family 10 kg of flour early in December,said it was a lapse on their part. We did apprise the sarpanch of the familys plight,but we did not explain to the family that they could have demanded work under the NREGA, he said,adding that the sarpanch agreed to meet Ganga on December 5 but failed to keep the appointment.
The NGO Shruti does work on NREGA but admits it never struck them to explain NREGA benefits and rights to the impoverished couple.
Chittorgarh block development officials said the last NREGA awareness drive was held in this area between October 9 and October 15 while the Bharat Nirman programme was held near Chittorgarh three years ago. Barely 3 km from Singhs home are some NREGA-awareness paintings on the walls of the village panchayat office and school. Ganga said they were illiterate though the children now study in the nearby government school.
Ganga knows nothing about the NREGA though she holds a NREGA job card and even worked under the scheme. To her,it is just another sarkari kaam. Ganga worked for 27 days under the NREGA between August 1 and September 30,earning Rs 2,748. Despite having another 73 workdays,Ganga was unaware that the NREGA entitled them to demand work and if work was not given,they could even demand unemployment benefits.
In August,I was told that there was government work nearby,so I went and worked there. But I did not know I could demand work from the government. I would have gladly worked and earned money,since my husband has been ill for two years, Ganga said. She said she always believed she could earn money from this sarkari kaam only when the panchayat said there was work.
Nikhil Dey from the MKSS said it was the duty of the government to disseminate information about the NREGA,which they had failed to do. It is mandatory to spread awareness about this act throughout the state but has not been done. There are several cases that we have come across in the state,where the villagers do not know their basic rights under the NREGA, Dey said.
A senior Rajasthan government official said lack of awareness about NREGA among the rural population was unfortunate . He said the government was taking the issue seriously and would increase awareness about NREGA and its benefits after completion of the panchayat elections.