Challenging Exclusion

21-year old Suresh of Borlai village of Badwani district is engaged on road leveling work for last seven days, under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, in Dhanora of Madhya Pradesh. His name is duly registered in the Employment Guarantee Scheme Job card and in return is receiving his wages at the rate of Rs. 61.37 per day. He is performing his work with dedication and in a submissive manner. But what is special in this? With the enforcement of Right to Work legislation, about 43 lakh other workers are also engaged in labour work under the Scheme. Still, Suresh has a distinct identity amongst that lot of 43 lakh workers - he is sightless - no eyes to see. Similarly, Bestia of tribal community, belonging to Hirakarai village, is digging a drench with pickaxe at the hilltop for controlling the water. Since he completes his assigned target and, in return, receives his minimum daily wages. Here also Bestia is different from other normal workers – because he is handicapped by one leg.

Like this, there is a long list of such distinctions in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh. Of course, a provision in the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been made to the effect that in case a handicapped person demands an employment, he must be provided with some work. However, there cannot be two opinions that handicapped are always defined/viewed as less-than-capable persons and it has been socially opined that such persons have negligible contribution towards any social, economic or political activity. Further, along with their families, the Government and the community not only had to shed off some of their economic resources over such persons, but lot of time and efforts are also spared to look after such unfortunate ones. A handicapped person does not feel hurt so much by his disability, as he or she does by the ignorance and ill treatment meted out to them at the hands of society – both economically and socially.

In an effort to change such a mind-set, a positive and wide ranging attitudinal change is beginning to replace the prevailing negative attitude and myths towards this marginalized section of society, with the combined efforts of voluntary organizations, community and respective Panchayats.

Under the Madhya Pradesh Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Right to Work has been defined as opportunity of employment for manual labour work. Here alone lies the contradiction. On the one hand, as per the provisions of Scheme, there is a requirement of target based hard physical labour work for earning minimum wages, but on the other hand, same standards are also applied to handicapped persons – with absolutely no distinction, knowing fully well that they may not be able to meet that standard requirement.

However, the firmly rooted myths about the disability, in the district of Badwani (Madhya Pradesh), are beginning to give way. Here, 84 handicapped persons of 26 villages of this district, are not only successfully engaged in physical labour but are also getting employment in other assignments under the Scheme. Not only the handicapped persons are included in such schemes, but in the Check Dam, being constructed in Kalibedi, under the Scheme, even the mentally challenged persons, like Pappu, are also engaged in digging work there. Apart from Pappu, 11 other similar persons are co-partners in such initiative to counter the prevailing myths about capabilities of physically and mentally challenged persons. Here, it is pertinent mention, that a voluntary organization – Asha Gram Trust, have played a major role, in this area, to fight against the discriminatory attitude of Society against their this very section of handicapped persons.  Analyzing the scenario, Mr. Vijay Swai of this voluntary organization, states that 7 to 10 percent of total population is suffering from disability in one form or the other – some of which is visible and some is not. Then there is also an attempt to hide the disability.  May be, because of this attempt to hide, its repercussions acquire higher adverse dimensions. It is hoped that with the opportunities being provided under the Employment Guarantee Scheme, such persons will come out of their shell and possibly their treatment also inherently lies here.

Now the question is whether this part of the Society can be separated? It is said that there is direct link between poverty and disability. To clarify it further, take the statistical data of Badwani district. Here the total number of handicapped persons is 17,782, out of which 13,052 are living below the poverty line. Here, the Employment Guarantee Scheme acquires utmost importance, rather becomes a necessity, because 87% of handicapped are living in villages itself.

It is but natural that because of discriminatory attitude against the handicapped persons, they are not able to play their respectful contributory role in the Society. The experience of district Badwani creates many new openings. To bring about a change in the system, peoples organisation, like SANGATI, have also played extremely important role. Although the population of village Hirkarai is more 2300, but because of being politically strong, the writ of only Sarpanch used to operate. It is a fact that in this village, all the decision making powers, big or small, routine or specific – proverbially including ‘day’ or ‘night’, are concentrated in one and only one person alone. In such an authoritarian and one-man power centered village, when the Employment Guarantee Scheme started operating, tractors were being freely used (contrary to provision of no mechanized work).  As such, after putting-in even 10 hours of work on stony land, the tribal workers were being paid between Rs. 20 and 25 as their wages.

Under these circumstances, according to one tribal – Prakash, the voluntary organization – SANGATI, came forward, took initiative and decided to fight it out by taking head-on both with Assistant Engineer as well as the all powerful Sarpanch. Obeying the call given by SANGATI, all the on-going activities came to stand still and that so far invincible Sarpanch was gheraoed. For the first time, a situation to meet, discuss and talk about at equal footing arose in the village. Being pressurized by that voluntary organization, SANGATI, the Officers of Rural Engineering Department, were forced to bring about required changes in the system of measuring the work done by the villagers and only as a consequence of such fight back, the workers were able to receive their due minimum wages and usage of tractor was stopped in the project work.

According to Cheemu Bhaila of SANGATI at Hirkarai, during last five years, people of this village used to get work only for a single day, but today the on-going projects worth Rs. 25 lakh are in progress, which include road construction, culvert making, plantations etc., and as such, apart from work people are also able to meet the respective requirement of their own as well as that of their families. The most important and positive aspect of this whole episode is that now we have been made aware as to how and where to approach for raising our voices to protect our rights so that they are not scuttled at the hands of vested interests. Although the Government commenced the work, under the Scheme, of its own, but we made application for work and upon refusal by Panchayat, approached the Janpad, as we knew that in the absence of any paper work, it is just not possible to fight for the rights and achieve success.

Ram Lakhan, one of the volunteers of Ashagram Trust, says that linking the disability with employment is a challenging task and perhaps most positive aspect of it. It is challenging in the sense that so far the handicapped persons are considered as burdensome ones. Like a business rule, Society put in its efforts and investments for material gains and only the human angle can make a dent in such an approach. Talking about the concept of their strategy, Ram Lakhan says that as per prevailing practice in the Society, the identity of a handicapped person is not known by his name, but by his disability. He is identified and called either as a Maimed (Loola), a Lame (Langra), a Mad (Pagal), a Deaf (Bahra), a Blind (Andha), or whatever may be his disability. As such, when the nomenclature itself is taunting, insulting, and disdainful then it can be hardly expected that their rights will be duly accepted and recognized.

However, picking a human angle, SANGATI, like an organization, took the initiative and fought for the rightful place of handicapped persons in the Society. Right from arranging their official recognition certificates as ‘handicapped persons’, SANGATI has got them provided with Lease rights (Pattas) over the forestland. Now these very handicapped persons are managing the affairs of this organization.

In fact is that there was never an attempt for identifying the areas where handicapped persons can work and perform as per their respective capacities and capabilities. Taking initiative jointly with Ashagram Trust, the SANGATI prepared a list and identified such jobs, under the Madhya Pradesh Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which can be successfully performed by handicapped persons. Looking at the list so prepared by these organizations, it raises many questions and whey it did not strike earlier. Such as why not a person, handicapped by both of his or her legs, can perform the plantation activities and why not, just by sitting at a place, can drag a soil basket, duly filled by other workers engaged in digging for a well?

Similarly, talking about Suresh (handicapped by both of his eyes), we know that he is engaged in road construction work and successfully performing his assignment by spreading the soil over the road for leveling it. Here it has to be admitted that while the disability creates only physical deformity of a person, but the very realization of inferiority complex coupled with presumed incapacity, breaks his self-confidence itself in totality.

Tensingh of Medimata village, despite being handicapped by legs, is engaged in Cantor digging work and looking at his self-confidence and efforts to survive, the village people started treating him with equality and with due respectability. Panchayat also started behaving with him as a human being and every person at his work place, is willing to help him. This is an ample example to assert that without self-confidence coupled with social acceptance, the prevailing vicious myths about the capacities and capabilities of handicapped persons cannot be removed and shall remain away from the mainstream. However, there are positive signs for breaking such myths.

The change in conception received a boost from Panchayats of Talun Khurd and Bajtatta Khurd of Badwani block. A elected member of Bajtatta Khurd Panchayat (village level elected governance body) – Jagdish Kumavat, a handicapped himself, made a formal proposal in the Gram Sabha to the effect that all the Job Cards for all the 11 handicapped persons of the Panchayat must be prepared and work be provided to them without any condition whatsoever. The logic behind such a proposal was that under Right to Work, it is a matter of right for everybody than on what basis the handicapped remain deprived from availing this right. The real problem lies in the attitude and approach of the society towards them, who always ignore such people, treating them as incapable and inefficient, without exploring the possibilities of their inherent strength and consider them as human beings like others. As such, till we fight ourselves to protect our rights, nobody will listen to us.   The argument made a wonder magic and the Panchayat started treating such persons with equality and social acceptance.  Similarly, the young Sarpanch of Talun Khurd Panchayat, Pyar Singh, also adopted this process formally in his Panchayat.   One Tilak of this village is handicapped by both of his legs.  Earlier he received a Tricycle and he used to wander along with his friends.  But now, as soon as he got a work under the Employment Guarantee Scheme, his whole concept towards life has changed.   For the first time he realized that he can also earn for his family.   Though rather difficult to believe, but Sarpanch Pyar Singh says, that this is a fact that for last two months, Tilak has provided extensive support to his parents and Panchayat also never under-estimated his work and performance.  The Rules and Regulations, as framed by the Government, are meant to facilitate the human beings and not to torture them.  Therefore, it has been decided that the Panchayat to Talun Khurd shall bring about a change in the system of measuring the labour work to suit the persons like Tilak.

Ashagram Trust has already identified 25 such assignments, which can be fully and efficiently performed both by physically handicapped as well as mentally weak persons.  Such assignments include – Leveling of roads, Caring the children at work site, Soil filling, Land leveling, Serving water, Plantation, Boundary mounding, hedging or fencing etc.

However, to promote such initiative and to bring them at the level of society as a whole, only a few selective examples are not sufficient, but the need is to effect a basic change in the very concept of the Society towards handicapped persons.  Pause a while and think whether disability really means incapability?  After all, they are also human beings and deserve to live in the society with due social acceptance and dignity.

Sachin Kumar Jain

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