The last time Parvati got work under MNREGA was a year ago, in May 2023. It was for just five days.

Parvati (she uses just this name) spent the time levelling a road in her village of Gaur Madhukar Shahpur. The 100 days a year, assured by the state under MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) was never on offer to this 45-year-old daily wage labourer who belongs to the Jatav (Scheduled Caste) community. “We are managing to survive by filling half our stomachs,” she says.

The state failed her again when the couple’s application for a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana was rejected in 2020. Unable to wait anymore, Parvati and her husband Chotey Lal took a loan of Rs. 90,000 from relatives for construction of a two-room pucca house.

“If someone comes asking for a vote, I want to know how my name was missing in the list of beneficiaries for a house, but appears in the voters' list?” she adds, miffed. Parvati’s husband, who was also employed under MNREGA, couldn’t work after he suffered a paralytic attack five years ago. Today he occasionally goes to a labour mandi in Varanasi city where daily wages are Rs. 400 - Rs. 500.

MNREGA guarantees employment of 100 days to rural unskilled labour. But a common complaint across villages here in Varanasi district is that only 20-25 days’ work is available annually since “the last two pradhani ”, referring to the last two terms of the sarpanch , or roughly 10 years.

Parvati is now saddled with a debt she should never have had in the first place. With no help from the state, she relies on wage work in the fields of the Thakur community who give her 10 kilograms of foodgrains for the roughly 15 days of work during the harvest and sowing seasons.

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Parvati (left) is a  resident of Gaur Madhukar Shahpur in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. She says the promised 100 days of work under MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act)  was never offered to her. With her husband Chotey Lal (right) in front of their house

The village of Gaur Madhukar Shahpur in Raja Talab tehsil has about 1,200 households of people mainly from the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste communities. Agriculture for self-consumption happens on small parcels of land, and labour work is the main livelihood.

The village lies 20 kilometres from Varanasi city and falls under the Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting for his third term in the Lok Sabha. He won in 2014 and 2019 from here.

Elections are on June 1, and Varanasi is among the most keenly watched constituencies. Saffron posters stating ‘ Har dil mein Modi (Modi in everyone’s heart)’ adorn every nook and corner, pasted on the rear of e-rickshaws and street lamps. Autos with speakers blaring speeches of the high-profile candidate and his role in the newly-constructed Ram temple, are a common sight everywhere.

But here in Gaur Madhukar Shahpur, there are no campaign posters; a photograph of Modi at the consecration ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya has been installed right outside a Hanuman temple in this basti (settlement).

Parvati says that she is finding it difficult to feed herself and her family of five and wonders why the state has not stepped in to help, “since the government issues Aadhaar cards and seems to have information about everyone, why can’t they find out who is poor?” She has the blue flag of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) flying atop her house.

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

A poster of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pasted (left) outside a Hanuman temple in the Harijan settlement of Gaur village. Around 1,200 households of people mainly from the Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste communities live here. A flag of the Bahujan Samaj Party (right) atop Parvati’s house

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Left: Renu Devi is a coordinator with the MNREGA Mazdoor Union and says MNREGA work has been declining. Posters of Modi are all over the city and district of the constituency where the Prime Minister is contesting for the third time

The decline in work under the rural guarantee scheme is confirmed by Renu Devi from the MNREGA Mazdoor Union who told PARI, “the state of MNREGA has been deteriorating since 2019. Earlier when we used to write applications on behalf of villagers, a week-long task would be assigned. Now getting even seven days’ work in a year is tough.”

In just 2021 alone, local volunteers of MNREGA Mazdoor Union wrote 24 letters to block level officials in Varanasi requesting that work be allocated in different villages.

That is the same year that Jeera Devi last got MNREGA work – June 2021.

Jeera is from the same basti in Gaur Madhukar Shahpur village. The 45-year-old wage worker pulls out a jhola (cloth bag) she received from the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana with a photo of Prime Minister Modi embossed on it. Ironically, it holds her important papers relating to schemes that have passed her by. “As far as Modi is concerned, we’ll first have to find the helicopter he’s riding,” she says, smiling.

Jeera says that the local pradhan (headman) asked her to pay a bribe of Rs. 10,000 in exchange for a house under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana- Gramin . She even wrote a letter to the District Magistrate of Varanasi to no effect. “See the walls of my house, made up of gunny bags and posters!” she adds, sitting inside her home under a thatch roof.

The loss of MNREGA work for this daily wager is crippling; the family own less than a tenth of an acre of land. Her son Shivam, and her husband Ram Lal depend on her wage earnings, but now in her forties, she finds it difficult: “I developed a severe headache and body aches and so can’t lift mounds of mud [sometimes part of MNREGA work] anymore.”

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Without MNREGA work, Jeera Devi struggles to feed her family. She says despite her obvious poverty, she has been denied a home under state schemes. She has the bag though, announcing them (right)

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Jeera Devi with her son Shivam (left) and their kuccha house and kitchen (right) in the Harijan settlement in Gaur Madhukar Shahpur village

The family belong to the Bind (Mallah) community, listed under Other Backward Class in Uttar Pradesh. Her husband doesn't work anymore and their son who is visually impaired, used to receive a disability pension but it stopped last year and they have not been able to revive it.

Holding on to a bunch of garlic stalks she has received as payment for her work as an agricultural labourer that day Jeera Devi announces to this reporter and those milling around us, “I will vote for a woman who supports people like us – Mayawati!”

A tough stand in this high-profile constituency.

But Jeera and Parvati are not alone. “I haven’t made up my mind yet [about who to vote for]. But we are not happy with Modi ji ’s work,” says Ashok, also a daily wage worker in the same village.

His wife, Sunita, got three days under MNREGA recently, and five days last year (2023). The couple live in Gaur Madhukar Shahpur with their three children: 14-year-old Sanjana, 12-year-old Ranjana and 10-year-old Rajan.

Ashok (he uses only this name) was once a weaver of the highly-priced Banarasi saris, but the earnings were not enough for his growing family. Since he quit weaving, he has been working as at construction sites and the labour mandi in Varanasi city. He gets roughly 20-25 days’ work in a month, and is paid a daily wage of around Rs. 500. “Somehow we are managing to make ends meet,” says the 45-year-old as he leaves his home in the Harijan basti here, stepping past earthen pots and red flags on his way to the labour mandi .

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Ashok stopped working under MNREGA a few years ago. Once a weaver of Banarasi saris, he now does wage work. Posters of Modi in Rakhauna village

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Santhara Devi of Rakhauna village has also not got work under MNREGA. She now strings Rudraksh beads in her home and earns around Rs. 2,000 - Rs. 5,000 every few months

Blue stickers stating ‘ Main hoon Modi ka pariwar [We belong to Modi’s family]’ are stuck on the gates of houses in Rakhauna village, also in Varanasi district. In Santhara Devi’s home, a poster with Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath’s face announcing their achievement as “ double engine ki sarkar” is lying on a cot.

Busy weaving a mala (necklace) of Rudraksha beads, she is seated on the mud floor; swarms of flies surround her in her modest home, only a thatched roof protecting the family of six from the harsh summer sun. She tells this reporter, “we have neither agricultural land nor an orchard. If we don’t work how will we feed ourselves?”

Registered as a MNREGA worker, she got eight days of work last August (2023), digging a pokhari (pond). To make up for the loss of earnings under MNREGA, women like Santhara have resorted to other low-paying jobs – making rudraksha malas fetches them Rs. 2,000 - Rs. 5,000 every few months. “We are paid at the rate of 25 rupees for a dozen. The wholesaler gives us 20-25 kilos of Rudraksha beads at a time,” she adds

Santhara’s neighbour, Munka Devi, 50, too, has been waiting to hear from the Rojgar Sahayak (who helps with the records), regarding MNREGA work for the last year. Munka has 1.5 bighas of land in her husband’s name and she grows vegetables for sale, but also works on others’ fields. “It helps my family get at least namak-tel [salt and oil],” she says in a reference to basic food items.

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

A MNREGA job card (left). Shakuntala Devi (right) found her name had been wrongly struck off the MNREGA list. She now polishes stone idols, and her hands are always bruised

PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar
PHOTO • Akanksha Kumar

Munka Devi (left) outside her newly constructed house. Shila (right) says 'Modi snatched away our NREGA work'

In Khewali village, Shakuntala has decided not to cast her vote this time. “Since the government hasn’t given me any employment, I won’t vote for anyone,” she declares. Shakuntala is among 12 women in this village whose names have been struck off from the list of those with active job cards – a clerical mistake made while removing names of fake MNREGA workers.

“Modi snatched away our NREGA work. We want at least two months of regular work and 800 rupees as daily wages, “says Shila, another resident of Khewali. “Pulses, salt and oil should also be given in addition to wheat and rice as part of the free rations scheme,” Shakuntala chips in.

Stone idols of nandi (sacred bull), adorn the open space of her house. “My hands get bruised from polishing these but I earn 150 to 200 rupees a piece.” Her fingers are swollen from the effort but for women like her who are not getting regular work under MNREGA, the options are few.
Akanksha Kumar

Akanksha Kumar is a Delhi-based multimedia journalist with interests in rural affairs, human rights, minority related issues, gender and impact of government schemes. She received the Human Rights and Religious Freedom Journalism Award in 2022.

Other stories by Akanksha Kumar
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David