It’s a December morning.
Vardi bai* started her day earlier than usual. 30 years of marriage has changed many things, but mornings still remind her of her mother’s house. The liberty of remaining in the warmth of a blanket for a little longer is no more hers to take.
She walked to the cattle-house while rubbing her sleepy eyes. Gathered fodder and checked the water tank, nearly empty. She picked the vessels and walked around half a kilometer to fetch water from the well. Today, she took an additional trip, to provision it until she returns. Catching a breath, she milked the cow and lit the chulha. As the room started to fill with the aroma of tea, Kesulal* woke up. With palms still warm by the teacup, he walked out to tie the bulls back to the hook. By dawn, Vardi bai was ready with a 3 boxed tiffin for him, with makke ki roti, vegetable and khaati chhach in it. After requesting a neighbor to take care of the children, they paced on the trails. The sky started to light up in the middle of their hour-long journey.
The hamlet called ‘Sapra’ is scenically mesmerizing. 35-40 houses settled near the bank of a brook, scattered around Aravalli hills. The residents migrate for a major part of the year, under distress, to find labor-intensive work in the cities. The trails ended at an old nearly-absent concrete road. A few moments passed before they sighted a jeep, carrying passengers twice its capacity. Kesulal made space for Vardi bai by the driver’s side and secured a seat on the roof for himself. The chilly wind pierced through his muffler, while the jeep covered nearly 25km of distance. The jeep stopped at Gogunda, the nearest block. But the journey hasn’t ended for Kesulal. He saw Vardi bai off at closed gates of a bank and boarded a crowded bus to Udaipur.
Udaipur is the largest district in south Rajasthan, with 78% of the total population being tribal. At the end of the bus ride, he found himself waiting at naka with countless other laborers, approaching every vehicle stopping there, in hope of work; and a day’s wage. All faces here carry wrinkles, some due to age, mostly due to worries. Kesulal had an additional worry for Vardi bai today.
It was 2 hours before the bank opens. The queue started to grow. Standing in the queue, she thought about all the days that she had worked in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and estimated how much her account balance should be. The officer at Panchayat had said that the wages should be credited by now. She was hoping today would be the day when the wait would be over, the pay day! She looked around in search of friendly faces, a radar to pick whom she could ask for a favor. Most of the people in the queue weren’t literate, just like her. She asked the doorman to fill the withdrawal slip for her. This was a usual affair for the doorman. He filled the slip and demanded 10 rupees. Vardi bai paid with a dismal look in her eyes.
By the time clock struck 10, more than two dozen people queued up. The flood of people shifted to the counters as soon as the door opened. Vardi bai approached the counter with the withdrawal slip. The cashier, sitting at the other side of the counter, checked her account and declared that it had insufficient balance.
She suddenly felt poor(er). She couldn’t believe it. She asked the cashier to check again. The cashier seemed cold and uninterested. He intimidated her into leaving the counter. She left and queued in front of another counter. This counter was for updating bank passbooks. At the other end of another long queue, the officer updated it. She looked for another friendly face to ask for yet another favor. She needed someone to tell her how much money she had. She wasn’t literate. The doorman told her that her balance was, in fact, insufficient.
This wasn’t the first time she was leaving empty-handed. It was her fourth trip this month. She is not the only one. This is the story of every other family living around Gogunda block in Udaipur district. Hundreds of people, entitled to public welfare schemes, unable to benefit from them, due to lack of access to their own money.
Vardi bai is one of the many women who join the workforce under NREGS to get dignified work opportunities and equitable pay. For better monitoring and transparency, the wages for work done under NREGS are deposited directly into the bank account of workers. This is a welcome step, aimed at protecting workers against bureaucracy and corruption. Due to poor banking infrastructure in these geographies, low literacy, and awareness, what aimed to be a catalyst for development turned out to be a blatant denial of their right to their own money.
After days of hard work, the wages may take a week to 3 months to show up. The transfer of payment depends upon documentation and other formalities, the completion of which entirely depends upon Panchayat officers. With so many layers of administration, the population is often denied access to reliable information as well.
The degree of financial dependence on wages is very high for the families. Making such trips to the bank don’t only result in physical and emotional distress, it also results in an outflow of money. The loss is magnified when the transfers are made into men’s accounts for women’s work. A day in the queue for banking means a day with no wages. No wages, at times, means no food.
Other social security and development schemes, such as – old age pension, widow pension, scholarship, LPG subsidy, Awas Yojana suffer the same fate. During my time with the community, I witnessed several incidents of senior citizens queuing up for hours every day. Women with infants, traveling along with them, dangerously, on the roofs of crowded jeeps. The benefits don’t trickle down in an intended manner. It is strange how the lack of access is slowing the pace of development. It is often said, that justice delayed is justice denied, shouldn’t this also be true for access to one’s own finances?
Access to finance is not commonly seen as a human right. But the time delays and costs involved in accessing one’s own finances along with the lack of information contributes to a violation of many other human rights such as access to food, shelter, healthcare, dignified old age, etc. Shouldn’t access to finance then also be a universal human right?
* Names changed to protect identity