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Beating the system

Chris Elliot, a Concern UK Trustee, is in India visiting Concern's operations. This week, he will be sharing his experiences of the trip as a guest blogger.

Under Indian law introduced in 2006 those officially classified as impoverished are entitled to 100 paid days work by the government. Corruption and incompetence means that many are thwarted in the attempt to claim what is rightfully theirs.

Hermalata Mohanta, a 35 year-old married woman with one son, describes what happened when a band of women from her village of Harichandanpur, 40 kilometres south east of Koenjhar, took on the system and won.

“We made our claims for work on 20 June last year and were given a job in a nearby village. 33 of us went to the site, 30 were women. But there was no work. After about three hours a contractor came and said ‘why are you here, who told you to come?’ They harassed us and would not give us the minimum number of rupees (70). Then they swore at us and we had to leave.

“Then we made another claim for work and were on site for two days and they made us sign a blank piece of paper (illiterate workers regularly sign and corrupt officials fill in a larger number of days than has been worked and pocket the money).

“So we applied for work for a third time and there was 57 of us who went to this site where they told us our jobs were stone breaking but we had no tools. Once more we had to return to the village.”

At this point, Nishit Ranjan, the local community organiser of CACD, one of Concern’s partners, went to the site to complain of the women’s treatment. He actually received death threats. Later that night, six or seven men came to his house and threatened him unless he moved in the morning.

He lodged a formal complaint with the police about the death threats and the actions of the local government officials. By this time the women had gone to the police station to give him moral support.

They returned home and waited for their complaints to be processed and receive a further job within 15 days, as stipulated by the law.

“It didn’t happen so we held a rally outside the block (local government) office and stayed there all day in the rain. The block officers locked themselves in because they were frightened of us. The police and the block officers said we didn’t look like we wanted to work but we said we were determined.

“Then the senior one went home and then came back verbally promising us work but we said we wouldn’t go until we had it in writing. Then he wrote down three offers of work.”

Even two of those didn’t bring the days of work they sought. The third day did although once again it was moving boulders. But their determination had paid off and convinced officials that they couldn’t be ignored.

“We have now had 80 to 90 days at 70 Rupees a day which shows that we were right to fight.”