MGNREGA Factor: Rajasthan Villages Say ‘No’ To Municipal Upgrade

OB Bureau

Amarpal Singh Verma

Hanumangarh/Jaisalmer (Rajasthan): When the Rajasthan government announced in its Budget on February 10 last year that many village panchayats will be converted into municipalities, villagers of Goluwala Niwadan and Goluwala Sihagan did not know what was coming. As soon as the notification was issued on June 26, work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme stopped at Goluwala Niwadan and Goluwala Sihagan in Hanumangarh district.

“We workers have nothing to do with the municipal status. All we need is employment, which we get from MGNREGA. As soon as the notification was issued, MGNREGA work was stopped,” said MGNREGA mate Kamal Chhimpa.

Angered by the loss of person-days of over 3,000 workers, residents of both villages protested before deputy tehsildar of Goluwala, sub-divisional magistrate of Pilibanga and Hanumangarh District Collectorate for two months. However, when the government did not pay attention to their demand and opened a municipality office at Goluwala Niwadan, villagers Pradeep Bishnoi and Rohitash Sharma approached Rajasthan High Court, challenging formation of the municipality.

They argued that the government declared their panchayats as municipalities without following the procedure prescribed under Section 101 of Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.

”Under Section 101, the district Collector should have issued an objection notice and invited objections from the villagers, but the villagers were not given an opportunity to be heard,” Bishnoi, who has worked as an MGNREGA mate for many years, told 101Reporters.

In a huge relief to the villagers, the high court issued a stay order on July 25 last year. For now, both panchayats have started functioning as before.

Why exactly were they worried when work under the state government’s Indira Gandhi Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme was available in municipal areas? MGNREGA workers think it is not possible to get as much work under the urban scheme as is available under the rural scheme.

“MGNREGA is the most attractive among government schemes from which people of the village benefit. Their livelihood mostly depends on it,” claimed Krishnalal Pareek (58) from Goluwala Sihagan.

“I have worked in MNREGA for many years, so I know its benefits,” Bishnoi adds.

The protests were not restricted to Goluwala Niwadan and Goluwala Sihagan. Immediately after the government’s Budget announcement, people of Jaisalmer’s Ramdevra village panchayat — located 445 km from Goluwala — launched their protest. They feared losing benefits under various schemes if the conversion to municipality materialised. Despite this, the notification to convert Ramdevra into a municipality was issued in April.

Soon after, sarpanch Samandar Singh Tanwar filed a writ petition in the high court, which stayed the process. “Ramdevra has over 3,000 MGNREGA workers. They feared they would become unemployed if MGNREGA work ceased,” Tanwar said, adding that they would have been deprived of about 24 schemes if the village status was lost.

Jagdish Baral of Mawa in Ramdevra used to work as a construction worker before turning into MGNREGA labourer. “I have been a mate for many years now. No doubt, MGNREGA has a huge contribution in maintaining the livelihood of my family,” he said.

Ramdevra-based MGNREGA worker Dhannaram Panwar said there would be no benefit for workers like him if Ramdevra became a municipality. “The poor get employment only in panchayats,” he said convincingly.

Tanwar added that villagers would also have to pay a higher rate of house tax to the municipality, small shopkeepers will have to obtain trade licences, urban development tax will have to be paid by all and people will have to bear the burden of higher land regulation.

According to government officials, this notification was a symbol of progress towards urbanisation of villages, but the villagers did not like it.

Pawan Chaudhary, who was the executive officer of Goluwala municipality for a week, enumerated the benefits of forming a municipality.

“The villagers may face some problems initially when the panchayat becomes a municipality, but ultimately it will benefit them. Formation of a municipality will lead to planned development. Due to urbanisation, the market will develop and facilities such as roads, streetlights, sanitation and parks will be available,” he explained.

“This will increase property value. People will get commercial leases for their lands through which they will be able to access bank loans. Employment opportunities will increase as industries will develop in the surrounding areas. Colonies will develop on agricultural lands,” Chaudhary, currently the executive officer of Suratgarh Municipality in Sriganganagar district, said.

Choudhary said he had educated villagers about these benefits, but villagers were more inclined towards benefits of panchayat schemes. “MGNREGA was also a big issue,” he added.

Sushil Siddh, acting village development officer of Goluwala Niwadan, said that there are about 2,500 job cards in Goluwala Niwadan and Goluwala Sihagan panchayats.

“MGNREGA workers have opposed the formation of the municipality the most. Even if there is an urban employment scheme, the villagers know that they cannot get work as compared to MGNREGA,” he said.

Professor Kulbhushan Kothari, 89, a former senior adviser of UNICEF and managing trustee of NGO Pratham Rajasthan, said that the apprehensions of villagers were justified because the poor have not been given any importance in the framework of urban planning.

“The infrastructure of schemes made for rural areas is more effective from the point of view of the poor. In cities, the development of wards is directly decided by the government, whereas ward sabha exists in villages. Village panchayat is a constitutional body, and municipalities are less powerful than village panchayats,” he noted.

Prof Kothari said villagers are not wrong if they trust MGNREGA because no one knows how long the Indira Gandhi Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme will last, though the newly-formed BJP government of the state has made a provision for this scheme in the Budget. However, its future is at stake as the BJP government is examining whether to continue this scheme and the Chief Minister Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

Prof Kothari said that merely removing the village panchayat board from any building and hanging the board with the name of municipality written on it will not lead to development. For this, proper planning will have to be done.

“The most important thing is to let the village remain a village. For good results, the resources available in rural areas should be utilised by forming collectives of 10 or 20 villages. A federation of villages will have to be formed on the lines of Amul,” he envisages.

The high court’s stay order is still in effect in Goluwala and Ramdevra. With the change in government in December, it is possible that the new BJP government may change the decision of the previous government and allow village panchayats to remain as such. If not, the legal battle may drag on for a long time.

(Amarpal Singh Verma is a Rajasthan-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

OB Bureau

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