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  NREGA her weapon  
  BY Ratna Bharali Talukdar

RAIPATI NOATIA, 40, chairperson of Khedarnal Village Committee of Amarpur block, South Tripura district, which is 123 kilometres from the state capital of Agartala, takes time off from her busy schedule to do something unusual: address the media flocking to the remote Khedarnal to interview her.

Press reporters and television channels are clamouring to speak to Noatia because the efforts of the tribal woman have enabled her village to become the first in the country to generate 100 person-days of work for all the 321 Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. The goal has been achieved under the scheme of the National Rural Employment Guaranteed Act (NREGA), during the year 2007-08.

The NREGA provides for the enhancement of livelihood security of households in the rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in every financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.

Noatia has led her village to attain this enviable status at a time when the state of Tripura recorded the generation of an average 38.86 person-days per family, in the year 2007-08, according to the progress report of NREGA implementation prepared by the state Department of Rural Development.

In order to maintain transparency in the workings, all schemes under the NREGA involve huge amounts of paperwork. Proper documentation is required at every step of the implementation and disbursement of money to the job-card holders. Keeping this in mind, Noatia's feat assumes greater significance, as she hardly had any formal education -- a fallout of poverty, lack of livelihood support and the frequent incidents of insurgency in the area.

Though the little education she received under the state Total Literacy Programme (the principal strategy of the National Literacy Mission that aims to eradicate adult illiteracy), Noatia was able to read and write in Bengali. Yet, it wasn't enough to prepare her for the official formalities of the NREGA programmes.

But Noatia just couldn't let the villagers down -- they had bestowed their trust in her and elected her chairperson of the Village Committee (VC) in 2006. So she geared up for the development activities in her village.

Khedarnal is a part of the Tripura Tribal Area Autonomous District Council (TTAADC), an independent council administering tribal areas of Tripura. The body has 30 members -- 28 members are elected, while two are nominated by the governor. Out of the 28 elected seats, 25 are reserved for the scheduled tribes (STs). There are as many as 527 TTAADA villages spread across 40 blocks, accounting for 67.98 per cent area of Tripura. Below the TTAADA are the Zonal Development Committees followed by the Village Development Committees.

The TTAADA villages follow a system of village committee or VCs -- on the lines of the 'Panchayat' system. The district Council has also vested power and duties with the elected VCs for implementation of the development schemes of the state and central government.

The team spirit of the seven-member Khedarnal VC and the support provided by Panchayat Secretary Mohan Kumar Riang led to the successful implementation of all the developmental schemes in Noatia's village. Talking about the time when she and her team were busy with the implementation of NREGA projects, Noatia says that sometimes they even stayed overnight at the VC office to complete the work. With the South Tripura district coming under the NREGA scheme only as late as 2007 and, thus, with no prior schemes and records to go by, the team had to work with greater care.

According to Noatia, acute poverty in the village was, in fact, the main reason behind the successful generation of 100-person day's work in the village. The annual report of the village in 2007-08 records 335 families with a population of 1,510. Of these, 321 families, which include 274 ST families, have gained employment under the NREGA.

As most of the villagers are dependent on forest-based products for a living and have only very small agricultural land holdings a constant demand for extra work existed. "During the awareness campaign of NREGA schemes, the Block Development Officer (BDO), Prasun De, told us that there was no dearth of funds or work but that we would have to express our demands and projects. He also told us that once we completed 60 per cent of the work of the sanctioned projects, we could submit the proposals for our next projects. So, we planned accordingly, designed such projects and submitted them on time. This has ultimately enabled us to gain our current status," explains Noatia.

Understandably, the list of schemes implemented under the NREGA activities in Noatia's village is extensive. The annual report of the VC -- where expenditure of works and schemes implemented under different projects, including NREGA schemes, records a total of 24 projects worth Rs 40,14,000 (US$1=Rs 42.7). Other than two schemes for the creation of water-bodies for establishing fisheries, all other activities concentrated on road construction to enable better connectivity in the village. A total of 16 kilometres of road were built inside the village during 2007-08. During Noatia's tenure, the people of Khedarnal have also managed to build a proper road to Amarpur, the block headquarters. The enthusiastic villagers have also constructed six low-cost wooden-bridges.

Significantly, road connectivity has got top priority in all NREGA schemes in Tripura. According to the Minister for Rural Development, Jitendra Choudhury, the state government has planned to connect every hamlet -- with a population of 250 -- with a proper road network.

A visibly happy Noatia adds that the VC had submitted project proposals to the Block Development Office that will enable them to bring these roads under the brick soling projects of the NREGA schemes during the year 2008-09. A total of Rs 30,00,000 has been sanctioned as payment of unskilled labourers under different schemes including brick soling, construction of culverts and generation of water-bodies. Of these Rs 400,000 has been released so far, she says.

"During the year 2007-08, we have distributed job-cards to 329 families. However, actual job-seekers were from only 321 families," explains the chairperson.

Noatia also speaks highly of the enthusiastic participation of the local women of her village in the implementation of NREGA works. She believes that the more women participate in developmental activities the more it empowers them. Seventy per cent of the NREGA-participating villagers were women. Normally, the men do not seek NREGA works as they get more money in other daily wage earning jobs outside the village like rickshaw pulling, agriculture jobs and carpentry.

To maintain transparency of work, particularly in terms of payment, the VC has taken the initiative of opening bank accounts of job-card holders so that money can be disbursed through financial institutions. Every job-card holder in the village now has a bank account in the Tripura Small Scale Co-operative Bank, the nearest financial institution, and payments will now be disbursed through the bank.

The people of Khedarnal, too, are happy with Noatia's efforts. Prabhati Noatia of Shivkumar area of the village, says," Earlier our village was in complete isolation. With construction of many new roads and widening of old existing roads, we can now easily reach access near by market to sell our products. This has become possible only because of dedication and sincerity of our chairperson.(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)
Photo caption: Raipati Noatia
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