Rural Crisis

As MNREGA work dries up, even the elderly in Bihar are migrating to brick-kilns

The cost of underfunding the rural jobs scheme is visible in the villages of Bihar.

In a year when large swathes of rural India reeled under drought, the Centre used WhatsApp messages to ask states to go slow on generating employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

This startling revelation emerged in the public domain in the last week of October through the reports of the Business Standard.

But for people in villages across India, the news is hardly surprising.

In Ratnauli village in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district, people said it has been a struggle to get MNREGA work this year. As in most parts of Bihar, landholdings in the village are severely skewed. According to Madina Begum, a woman in her late forties, of the 1,500 families in the panchayat, no more than 10 or 20 families own land. The rest are sharecroppers. The economics of their households are hard to imagine.

This is a paddy growing part of Bihar. Here, after deducting the investments they make for each crop and the money they pay the landowners, she said, the annual income that sharecroppers make from farming is as low as Rs 5,000.

"That is why NREGA is important for us," she said. "If we get work for 100 days, that is Rs 17,700."

According to the rural employment guarantee act, the government is obligated to provide households with a minimum of 100 days of work every year. In the best of times, households have found it hard to get 100 days of work. Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, the struggle has intensified.

“We did not get any work all of 2014," said Begum. "We got 20 days in 2015."

This year, Begum said, the villagers put in a request asking for 100 days of work. "But, so far, we have only received 35 days of employment."

Protests break out

As Business Standard reported, the Centre began sending instructions to the states on WhatsApp in August. Since then, work generated under the scheme has been "54.8 million days less than what had been planned”.

Villagers in Bihar might not know why MNREGA work dried up, but they are living with its consequences. In Ratnauli, things have reached such a point of desperation, said Begum, that even people in their fifties have begun migrating, seeking work in backbreaking brick kilns.

In the neighbouring panchayat of Dumri, villagers found the administration had misrepresented the work they did, paying them Rs 91 per day instead of the minimum daily wage of Rs 177. As a result, the villagers, who have come together under a local movement called NREGA Watch led by activist Sanjay Sahni, have been camping in protest at the district collector's office for two months now. If the matter is not resolved by the end of October, they say, they will return the wages to the state government.

Begum sums up the state of affairs: "Block ke afsar ko mahiney mahiney tankah aati hain. Koi nahin dekhta hamein hamara adhikar mil raha hain ya nahin." The officials get monthly salaries. No one is concerned whether we are getting what is rightfully ours.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

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Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.