The government has launched many different schemes that help in the upliftment of the poor and needy through low or no interest loans, subsidies, availability of jobs, food ration, and pensions. But these benefits hardly ever reach the ones who really need them. Many times, the middlemen involved make a profit by taking advantage of the poor, their illiteracy and lack of information. Information ambiguity amongst the masses with respect to Government policies along with misinformation and the resulting moral hazard makes it all the more necessary for information dissemination about rights and entitlements and providing a platform for voicing opinions when and where necessary.
Adhikaar Sakhi is a grassroots level cadre of women trained by Ibtada to act as the medium to spread awareness about rights and entitlements at the village level and to ensure everyone in the community receives the help, they require in accessing these. The women selected to be Adhikaar Sakhis are from local villages. Their selection is done based on two main criteria- literacy (should be able to read, write and interpret documents) and be forthcoming (someone who can be trained to liaise with Govt. Officials and ensure work is done). The rural conservative atmosphere that prevents women from stepping out makes it difficult to find women who will come forward to take such responsibility. Especially in Alwar district, where majority of the population is Muslim and the women have many restrictions, social and cultural.
Barfina is a resident of Piproli village in Ramgarh block and was selected for Adhikaar Sakhi training in 2015. At first, she did not have the faintest idea of what being an Adhikaar Sakhi entailed and having an infant child made her more reluctant to participate in the training.
She was worried she would have to leave her child at home when she went for her training. But Ibtada was very supportive and assured her she would not have to do so.
They also showed her pictures of women who had attended training in other cities with their babies in tow. On hearing such stories, Barfina was motivated; if someone else could do it, she definitely could. The Adhikaar Sakhi training gave her information about the different schemes available, the eligibility, what are the benefits and how to get them. She got trained about the different Govt. procedures that she will need to follow and who are the people who can help her. Soon everyone in the village came to know about her work and they would seek her help in resolving their issues. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. Initially, someone from Ibtada always accompanied her to the Government offices to get information or submit documents.
But going alone, she wasn’t given the same attention and asked to move from desk to desk or simply ignored. But Barfina did not give up.
She kept going to the offices regularly. In a few months, she understood the processes, who’s who and made connections which meant she could independently go to any office to get any work done. Earlier going to any Govt. office meant giving 20 odd rupees to someone sitting in a chair even if all you wanted was some information. And there was no guarantee the information you received was right. But with Barfina as Adhikaar Sakhi, things changed. Even Govt. Officials realized that these women were not someone they could fool.
Barfina used her knowledge to get information from the offices and ensure that no one ever needed to pay a single rupee in bribe to get their work done. All the information was received for free and they paid nominal charges to Barfina for filling and submitting their forms. The attitude towards women changed in the Village Panchayats also. Before the Rights and Entitlements program, women had no role to play in the Gram Sabha meetings. They would be asked to come to sign the meeting registers and leave with no information. The meetings hardly ever took place and no one in the village knew how or where to complain about it. Barfina started talking about this issue and insisted that the women start attending the Gram Sabha meetings. She also encouraged them to express their opinions and propose solutions with respect to their needs and discuss about the different village related issues. Going to the meeting was not easy and they were forced to leave multiple times from the Panchayat Ghar. But the women continued to go and insisted on staying despite the disdainment.
"They informed the Panchayat Secretary that they would only sign the register if they were allowed to sit in the meeting and participate in the discussions. He had no choice but to include the women in the meetings."
Having women in the meetings meant discussion of real community issues roads, drainage, water. The women wanted development in the village and they were also ready to work for it. The other village members too supported this view and thus supported the women. Since the participation of women in the Panchayat meeting, the village has seen a lot of development. Roads have been made, drainage is better, water tank was built, the village school improved and the women assure that the development will not stop. The village women talk very fondly of Barfina as she has helped many of then and their family members receive benefits that they lost hope for.
One such woman is 45 year old Parmeena who Barfina helped get her delayed payment for MGNREGA work after waiting for 5 long years.
Parmeena smiles and says that she received a payment of Rs 5000, including the interest on arrears, within 3 days of making the application and she did not pay any bribe to any official. Another story is from Seema who was being constantly duped by the local ration store who gave her only 15 kg of ration instead of 25 kg saying that is what her ration card entitled her. Barfina advised her to go to the Public Hearing organised by the SDM and complain there. Not only did the SDM hear her story, but he right away called the Ration shop to make amends and ensured she was not being duped again. Then there is Rasina, whose mother-in law’s pension was being paid into some account that did not belong to anyone they knew. Barfina helped her go to the Panchayat office and change the account number through correct procedure and now they are receiving their pension regularly. There are many more stories of how Barfina has helped the people in her village. They often offer her money in return for her help, sometimes a lot more than necessary. Barfina says she is overwhelmed by the support and faith everyone has in her but she only charges them as much is necessary for helping with the forms. Any information that anyone needs to know about Panchayat procedures, MGNREGA, PDS, Pension, etc. are provided free of cost.
Ibtada’s initiatives and their support have not just given women, especially Muslim women, a platform to step out of their homes but more importantly, it has helped in developing leadership skills and building a strong community of these women. Barfina understands that the Rights and Entitlements project will end someday, but even after the project period is over and Ibtada is no longer there to support, they will still continue being the strong community that they are. She will continue helping others with their rights and entitlements with all the knowledge and confidence she has gained in the last five years.