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Identifying the poorest of the poor in Barmer

The dry district of Barmer in Rajasthan, which lies in the Thar desert, has suffered drought for 45 years. The Lok Adhikar Network has been involved in identifying the poorest and most vulnerable groups in this inhospitable region, helping them avail of much-needed government assistance

In the middle of barren rocky hills on one side and vast sand dunes on the other, Nainu Devi sits shivering from fever in her small house and wonders whether she should go to fetch water. She decides against it and leans back weakly in her bed.

She can afford a little rest today. Respite from having to travel three kilometres for water. The reason: a water-storage 'tankli' has recently been constructed right outside her house, giving her the option of skipping the odd day in her trek for water. Earlier she would have had to go the distance, come fever or bodyache.

Nainu is one of the thousands of dalit (traditionally regarded as low caste) women who have benefited from the efforts of the Lok Adhikar Network (people's rights network) in Rajasthan's Barmer district. The district borders Pakistan in the mid-western desert region of India.

Barmer district, which is situated in the Thar desert, has suffered drought for around 45 of India's 56 years of independence. The average annual rainfall here is less than 250 mm.

In highly drought-prone, water-scarce areas, relief and development programmes are generally planned for entire rural communities, as all suffer some form of weather/climate-related stress.

In Barmer, there has been a significant effort to identify the most vulnerable groups, the poorest sections whose needs need to be specially understood and addressed. Otherwise, under the prevailing socio-economic conditions, these people remain neglected.

The Lok Adhikar Network (LAN) is a federation of about 22 youth groups (Nehru yuvak mandals) and voluntary organisations that have been working in 100-odd villages in Barmer for over two years.

The network is supported by ActionAid. Last year it implemented a huge relief effort reaching over 350 villages, funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).

Manas Ranjan, who, as programme manager of ActionAid played a special role in initiating the effort, says: "Development priorities can differ significantly from the point of view of the poor and the rich. If the village grassland is taken over for mining, some rich families may benefit greatly, at least for some years. On the other hand, the animal husbandry-based livelihood of weaker sections will be ruined."

Shankar Kumar, executive secretary of LAN, adds: "Animal husbandry is the most important source of livelihood in these villages. But, while cows, camels and buffaloes are more important for richer people, goats, sheep and donkeys are the most important animals for the poorest families."

"Dalit (a socio-economic weaker section) women work very hard in normal times as well as at famine relief work. However, liquor consumption by dalit men leads to loss of hard-earned money, which, ironically, finds its way to high caste, rich families who sell liquor right inside the village. So, the interests of dalit women need special protection," explains Kusum Dave, a field worker from Setarau panchayat.

At the outset, LAN emphasised the use of socio-economic criteria such as land ownership, animal ownership, caste and gender to decide the focus of its work. In practice this means that LAN works with scheduled castes and tribes (traditionally placed low in the social hierarchy) and, more particularly, with the women of these communities. In addition, LAN emphasises the needs of disabled persons, single-women households and elderly destitute people with little or no family support.

The network has helped the creation of several dalit organisations, especially of dalit women, and self-help groups. With their help, LAN's partner organisations have made an extensive effort to identify the most vulnerable rural households and ensure that government schemes meant for them actually reach them.

LAN activists and partner organisations took up the government's 'go to the village' campaign, providing lists of below poverty line (BPL) households and destitute persons in need of priority assistance from the government. Without such help, which included filling forms and following up with officials, many genuinely needy persons would not have been able to access government aid which, perhaps, would have been cornered by better-off sections or, worse, siphoned off by corrupt officials.

LAN initiated a transparent, inclusive process to identify households and persons most in need of assistance. The entire community was involved; people were encouraged to participate before actual decisions were taken.

A similar participatory process was followed in the selection of beneficiaries for LAN's own drought relief work, supported by funds from ECHO. Initially, the network's efforts to concentrate its limited resources on the poorest families were resisted by a few influential villagers. But, when the rationale behind this approach was explained to them in front of the larger community, they relented.

LAN's work has played a significant role in understanding the problems of the weakest sections in the most drought-prone areas.

-- Bharat Dogra

(Bharat Dogra is an independent writer based in New Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2004