Water woes in her village compelled Laichibai to work as a daily farm labourer in Jabalpur, away from her home in Umarwada village. As her children grew older, she wanted to settle back in her village permanently to be with her grandchildren. Returning to her village meant that she would need water to irrigate her land. The MGNREGS marked the beginning of a grandmother’s incredible journey. She started with construction of water structures to earn a living. The experience of corruption in her on payments prompted her to become a Panch in her panchayat. She is now the President of an institution that manages water, forests and other natural resources of her tribal village.
I was raised with a sister and two brothers in Bomanibanjar, Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. I had to quit school when I was six years old as my parents had to save money for the marriages of their two daughters. We had two acres of farm land. My siblings and I worked on the farm and at home to support our family. At the age of fourteen, I was married in a family in Umarwada, a tribal village in Mandla.
I live with my five children and thirteen grandchildren. While I can support my family through farming on our six-acre land, our conditions were not always the same. From a childhood where water was in abundance; Umarwada had acute scarcity. In the 1980s, we didn’t have enough water to irrigate our farms. There was one well in the village for drinking water where all of us would queue up for long hours to get a few pots of water. No efforts were made to store rainwater in the village at that time. Farming was unsustainable to support our family, so my husband and I would travel to Jabalpur and work as farm labourers.
After the children grew up, got married and settled down; I was keen to come back to Umarwada for good. At that time, I came to know of an opportunity to work with MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). The panchayat chose me to lead the scheme’s implementation in our villages. Under MGNREGS, we were keen to construct boribunds that would benefit the entire village by holding back flowing water from the village stream. Boribunds are built using sandbags on riverbanks and across river beds. Members of our village were reluctant to work as they often didn’t receive compensation for their days of work. Sometimes, their payments were delayed because of corruption in payment processing. As my village had little motivation to participate in water conservation works, I took the initiative to build boribunds on the stream near my plot. I was paid 4,600 rupees for my work. As soon as I got the payment for the work, people in my village expressed their willingness to work.
My village’s suspicions regarding work compensation were unfortunately for real. Although I received my payments on time, many people had problems procuring their compensation. Despite interactions with the local administration, our requests for timely payments didn’t yield results. To address these challenges, the farmers of my village motivated me to join the village Panchayat. I decided to stand for elections myself and was appointed as a Panch in 2009.
Even as a Panch, I was deeply disturbed to witness the extent of corruption. Only rich families benefitted from government schemes. I wanted to change this situation but faced immense resistance from other village officials when I would refuse to sign documents. It was upsetting to see how people turned hostile towards me for being transparent. But, I was wanted to make sure that the benefits of the schemes reached the people who needed them the most. Working honestly and putting the needs of the people before my own safety strengthened my resolve to keep working.
In 2016, an organisation* came to our village to setup a Gram Pariyavarn Samithi. Under the Panchayat Extension to Schedule Areas act (PESA), Gram Sabhas have the provision to set up a Gram Pariyavaran Samithi to manage water, forests and other natural resources of the village, in tribal areas. The villagers were sceptical about the working of this committee. I saw this as an opportunity to improve our lives and stood for the election of the post of its Vice President.
I was elected as the Vice President of the samithi with resounding support from the village as people had appreciation for my work as a panch. At the samithi, we took on the role to construct boribunds to arrest rainwater again. I went door to door to educate families on the benefits of boribunds to save water and convinced them to donate their efforts (shramdaan). Families were unwilling to let women participate in these initiatives. I would often share my life experiences of working as a panch and a samithi vice president. After persistent efforts, we have boribunds throughout our village today. We have easy access to water for our household needs and cattle even in summer. The days of walking for long hours to fetch water are behind us.
Though I am a school dropout; I represent my village in meetings at the block and district levels in discussions on water conservation. My village that once showed little interest in working together has started listening intently to ideas to secure water for their future. We now take decisions as one collective village. I’m learning so much from the power of groups. I hope that in the future, every village comes together to take decisions for their own progress and development.
Testimonial - "My work has deeply impacted my personal and family life. My husband and I distribute all our household work equally and there are hardly any fights at home. My family does not stop me from going anywhere. They handle things at home in my absence. Personally, I have become more confident to speak up whenever it can benefit my village members. I am happy to see many more people of my village voice their opinions and speak against any injustice in public hearings. They now realise the importance of honesty and encourage such values in their children.”