Travels through the Hindi belt: Rahul Gandhi’s NYAY has no takers in Mirzapur’s Saradah; most have not heard of it, don’t believe it can work

Editor’s note: This is part of a multi-article series on the jobs crisis in the three states crucial to Lok Sabha election 2019: Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.  

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Shashikala Maurya, 35, has to walk about an hour and a half before she can hope to land a day’s job. Residing in the hilly village of Saradah in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district, her options are limited to chopping wood and cutting stone. “The nearest junction where I can find work is 15 kilometers from here,” she said, draped in green sari. “There is no guarantee I will get work either. In a month, I hardly get 10 days of work at Rs 100 per day.”

To say Saradah is only 65 kilometers from Varanasi is accurate and misleading at the same time. The first 60 kilometers take an hour and a half. It is a smooth drive, until you have to follow an offshoot of the highway for the last five kilometers, which would even embarrass the “kachcha rastas” of Uttar Pradesh.

Dried up trees and its branches screeched against the car as we drove through the rocky mountainous road for the next 45 minutes. This is the same bumpy route Sasikala and the residents of Saradah have to traverse on foot if they intend to get work. “There is no water, no electricity in the village,” she added. “The land is barren. We cannot even cultivate food crops to arrange for our basic meals.”

The people of Saradah indicated that their income is way below Rs 12,000 a month. However, they are unaware of Nyuntam Aay Yojana, or NYAY.

Towards the end of March, Congress president Rahul Gandhi announced the NYAY scheme, which aims to meet a benchmark earning of Rs 12,000 per family. If a family earns Rs 7,000 per month, the government will chip in with Rs 5,000. It is targeted at the poorest 20 percent of Indians, or about five crore families.

With the announcement coming during the heat of the election campaign, many thought it would mark a tectonic change in people’s voting behaviour. However, I have been on the ground for a month and a half in Uttar Pradesh after Rahul’s promise, and there has not been much buzz around the scheme: positive or negative. There is, by and large, a lack of awareness, and the ones who know about it are indifferent. It has failed to set the agenda.

 Travels through the Hindi belt: Rahul Gandhis NYAY has no takers in Mirzapurs Saradah; most have not heard of it, dont believe it can work

Vidawa, 55, a woman from the Musahar community, said the forwards they get keep referring to Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, and Swachcha Bharat Abhiyan. Parth MN

Saradah is an apt representation in that sense. Population around 1200, its residents are mostly non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits.

“We do not have TV,” said Sasikala. “How would we know what Congress has promised? Can you please tell us the details?”

I give the brief outline. “How would they arrange for so much money?” she immediately asked.

“The Congress has not divulged details,” I told her.

She shrugged her shoulders.

Most villagers are not educated. Some are, and they have smartphones. “We mostly get our information from YouTube, and WhatsApp,” said Sasikala. “Those who have smartphones pass on the knowledge to others. We did not get any forward informing us about NYAY.”

In contrast, they have not just heard about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s schemes, but know exactly what they are supposed to deliver. Vidawa, 55, a woman from the Musahar community, said the forwards they get keep referring to Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Ujjwala Yojana, and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, among others. “We also listen to Modi’s speeches on YouTube, where he speaks about his achievements,” she added.

Sasikala and her husband, outside their home in Saradah, Uttar Pradesh, which was destroyed by a storm. Parth MN

Sasikala and her husband, outside their home in Saradah, Uttar Pradesh, which was destroyed by a storm. Parth MN

Ironically, the schemes she cited have not reached her village. Even charging a mobile phone is a task in Saradah, for they have to use a solar panel. Do they blame Modi for it? No.

“The pradhan of the village is corrupt,” said Vidawa. “He takes money from us for the schemes and then does not deliver. Modi cannot come to every village and ensure his schemes are being implemented. His job is to come up with programmes for the poor. It is because of the village-level corruption and local officers that we remain deprived. Because of them, we are cut off from the rest of the world.”

Being cut off makes it difficult to find work. Sasikala said it is even harder to survive if you are a woman. “When so many people are out searching for labour work, those who hire prefer men over women because cutting stone requires a lot of physical strength,” she said.

The Centre of Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) substantiated her argument. According to its report, women’s participation in the labour force in Uttar Pradesh is under five percent, as opposed to the national average of just over 11 percent. In contrast, men’s participation rate in the labour force stands at just under 70 percent.

Even if the State initiates employment opportunities in towns near Saradah, it would remain disadvantaged because of the restricted mobility. The nearest high school, or hospital is 15 kilometers from Saradah, which is also affected by Naxalism. Last week, when Vidawa’s health alarmingly deteriorated in the wee hours, the ambulance did not arrive at night. “We sat by her side through the night and waited for the ambulance with bated breath,” said Sasikala. “The ambulance finally arrived in the morning at 7.”

Sometimes weeks go by, say villagers, where they cannot step out of Saradah in monsoons. A river running across the village overflows, making it impossible to commute. “We have been asking the local MLA for a bridge for years,” said Lilavati, 60, who has spent almost her entire life here. “In the past four years, two pregnant women have died while giving birth.”

The river, an impediment in monsoons, also acts as the village’s only water source. “There is absolutely no development here,” said Lilavati. “We drink the same water we bathe our cattle in.”

On a sweltering afternoon with warm breeze, Sasikala took me towards the hand pump commonly used in the village. It is parched. “When it pumps water, it is yellowish in colour with an oily layer,” she said. “We need more work opportunities, proper attention from local officers or at least some financial assistance.”

Ironically, that is what NYAY claims to offer. “I know some farmers who have received Rs 2,000 in their bank account,” said Vidawa.

She is referring to the promise Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made during his budget speech, where the government said it would give Rs 6,000 a year to farmers in three installments. I tell her that is a different scheme, and the Congress promises to meet the benchmark household income of Rs 12,000 per month. “But then why haven’t their leaders campaigned with that slogan in our area?” she wondered.

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