NREGA narrative from Kerala

8th April, 2014

Talk veered to work and Sudha updated Usha on the rice processing she was doing for Thanal. She told us animatedly about being very busy since she was going for “thozhilurappu paddhati” 1. On our asking she pointed to the trench, lying parallel to the stream, they were digging as part of their NREGA work, (ostensibly to keep the elephants away from the crops), but added in the next breath, “but it is not of much use as the elephants anyway manage to come across the river.” However, she added that they were busy deepening it this season and the work was fun, as they could work a little while and then relax together. She said that the work was pretty light and she enjoyed the company of the other women. Walking along the stream, passing by some tribal women who greeted her, she showed us some local plants which could be used for pest control and told us that she has learnt numerous things from the tribals who had great knowledge and skill. We reached a point across the bend of the river where she sadly pointed out the spot where she lost her cow, who got entangled in the rope by which she was tied, while grazing, and was strangled to death, and said that she misses her and will never be able to get another one as good as her. She reminisced, “My father bought me this cow, and he had to stay at my place for a week to teach me what to do, as I knew nothing about rearing a cow. I have come a long way; I can do anything from milking a cow to assisting with the birth of calves to treating minor illnesses. Since then I have also picked up many things from the tribal women around here about taking care of cows, particularly about treating them for minor illnesses, so much so, that people around here regularly call me to treat their cows.” On being asked whether she was planning to buy another cow to replace the one that died, she said, “No, I don’t have time, what with having to go for thozilurappu.”But added in the same breath, “It was wonderful when we had my cow, we ate real ghee, and my children would always have fresh milk, now even with this cash income I will never be able to buy ghee or so much milk.” We drifted back to thozhilurappu, both of us curious to know more. Sudha complied and opined that thozhilurappu is a wonderful program because many women who have never worked outside their homes are coming to work regularly. Apparently the local panchayat officials have told them that they have to necessarily be part of the program. She said, “After all it is a government program and who knows we could also get some pension in the years to come. So now all of us prioritize going for thozhilurappu even if it means work on our land or in the house suffers”. We continued asking more questions amazed by the insights offered by this frank woman, by then we had reached her home and we spied her sewing machine in a corner of the veranda. She suddenly said, “I used to sew for people, but don’t have time anymore, in addition to my thozhilurappu work during the day I am very busy one evening every week as we all (the women in the group) take turns to make a “kadi” 2 for the whole gang. We smiled broadly, the joie de vivre she transmitted while talking about their vibrant social interactions in the thozhilurappu gang and the fun they had during the work day was delightful to watch. We chatted some more, and then took leave after partaking of the tasty “kadi” she made for that week (us being the unintended beneficiaries) with some misgivings and more questions in our mind. Sudha is a highly skilled woman with expertise in processing rice, cattle rearing, sewing and managing a farm, however with thozhilurappu her basic identity has become that of an ” unskilled worker” , is this what we wanted with this program? Sudha is just one woman, but similar stories are coming out from many places in Kerala. On our way down from Manathavadi, the next day, we stopped at Uravu 3, located at Thrikkaipetta village. Uravu is a group which promotes social entrepreneurship through value addition to renewable natural resources, mainly bamboo in this region. Uravu has trained hundreds of women in the art of bamboo crafts (a highly skilled work) and offer them regular work. However they have begun facing shortage of skilled workers as many women don’t come in, as most of them prefer to go for thozhilurappu work. The women again cite similar reasons, work is very light and it is after all a government project. At Uravu the women earn an average of Rs 100 a day depending on their productivity, yet they don’t get enough skilled women to come in. Again thozhilurappu leading to deskilling and demoting skilled women workers!!! While amazed at the spread and popularity of thozhilurappu in Kerala we were forced to think about some issues. Is it supposed to replace skilled work with unskilled work and self employment with dependence on government dole out? Shouldn’t the implementation of the program be done keeping in mind the local realities and in a manner which will create a sustainable local economy using natural resources, people resources and the funds in an optimal manner? Can this program be used to reduce pesticide/herbicide usage in agriculture, do value addition and processing of food grains and to provide an initial income while setting up small enterprises like cow rearing, creating organic inputs etc? Wayanad, earlier a food secure district of Kerala, is struggling on the agriculture front on many counts including lack of labour for weeding and other manual jobs ( many of them skilled paddy processing jobs), and safeguarding the crops in the night against marauding wild animals 4 . Extensive use of weedicides and pesticides, further poisoning an ecologically fragile region, expensive electric fences which keep out animals but create high levels of indebtedness among farmers and moving to unsustainable and unsuitable cash crops are the solutions people (who continue there) have arrived at. Of course a number of the erstwhile farmers have already sold their lands at a premium to the tourism industry causing unbridled “eco tourism” destroying the verdant ecological paradise! Can our policy makers use thozhilurappu to reverse these trends and solve some of these problems? Notes: the Malayalam name for the NREGA program ? A term in Malayalam which means “a bite” but colloquially used to mean any snack which is eaten with tea. ? ? Yet another story which needs to be analyzed in depth

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