Over the past week or more, since we’ve arrived at SPS, Natalie and I have been lucky to join a group of 12 new recruits to the organization in their orientation program. As such, rather than diving into our internships right away without much prior context or knowledge of the bigger picture, we have been lucky to have spent the past 8 days learning about all the sectors of SPS, through both classroom lectures and field visits, alongside 12 other young Indians our own age who are about to begin full-time jobs with SPS.
We have been privileged to learn so much right at the start, both from the formal orientation sessions and through our conversations with the new recruits, that we might have otherwise picked up slowly along the way if at all. We have learned about contemporary gender relations and the education system and we have learned about the social position of castes and tribes in India. We have learned about microfinance and self-help groups and about Indian legislation and broad political trends, which have affected efforts at rural development. Through these conversations, lectures, and site visits, we are becoming increasingly familiar with the underlying complexities that shape India’s society, its government, and its civil society sector.
One piece of legislation that has come up frequently and profoundly connects to SPS’s work in Madhya Pradesh is MGNREGA, or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. It was one of the major pieces of legislation put forth by the Indian government around 2005/6 to address rural development and the rights of the poor. In rural agricultural regions, such as this, people often migrate to more urban areas, in search of paying work when there is no gainful agricultural labor to be done. Moreover, they become reliant on moneylenders in these times of hardship. In order to address the accompanying problems associated with migratory labor and reliance on moneylenders, NREGA guarantees India’s rural poor 100 days of paid work if demanded. The work given under NREGA is supposed to contribute durable assets to poor rural communities in order to sustainably alleviate poverty and contribute to their future livelihoods. It is not supposed to merely act as an employment relief fund. Despite its loft goals, there are many issues with the implementation of NREGA and civil society organizations such as SPS are working to help enact this potentially groundbreaking piece of legislation in a way that makes sense.
A few days ago, as part of a field visit to SPS’s watershed sites in the region, we visited a worksite for a new watershed structure being constructed under the NREGA scheme. In this one scene the complexities of the situation rose to the surface. We got out of the van and saw men and women digging into hard rock and carrying large bowls of dug-out rubble atop their heads. It was hard to watch these people, already poor and frail-looking, engaging in such back-breaking manual labor, especially women. I felt like we were onlookers watching an unjust and oppressive labor arrangement. Coming from the US, manual labor is not thought of highly; it is often considered almost inherently exploitative. Yet these men and women were being paid fair wages for this work (the wage set by the government for labor under NREGA actually helps raise the market wage rate in most cases). They were working close to home and were not forced to migrate to find other means of employment in distant urban areas, which would probably be even more exploitative. Moreover, this watershed site would serve as a source of additional water, allowing farmers to grow more than one round of crops and therefore gain more money in the future. So, for me at least, and one of the new recruits with whom I had a similar conversation, this scene was difficult to take in and to form an opinion of.
Despite bringing our own set of judgments, opinions, morality and beliefs with us to India, I have found that we are confronted with situations that are often too complex for a ready response. There’s no easy answer or black and white morality to the lives and communities of the people we’ve encountered. It is humbling in a certain way to move beyond our easy formulas of how governments should work and how people should live that we often find in the classroom and in a Western-centered context.