Muzaffarpur, Bihar: For over a fortnight, hundreds of people from a village in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district have been on a 'dharna'. They are protesting against reports about the central government's plans to dilute the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA.
The NREGA, a scheme introduced by the previous UPA government, guarantees 100 days of work each year to the rural poor - at least on paper.
Earlier this month, 28 of India's top economists wrote to Prime Minister Narenda Modi, saying they fear his government is trying to dilute the rural jobs scheme. They raised specific objections to some of the proposed moves like restricting the scheme to the country's poorest 200 districts and imposing a cap on NREGA expenditure by state governments, among others.
Opinion may be divided on the effectiveness of scheme, but, says activist Sanjay Sahni of the Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan, "In the villages, the poor need employment. It is true that there is a lot of corruption (in the implementation of the scheme). But in the last three years, they have fought for their rights and ensured they have earned some money".
One of the beneficiaries of the scheme is 60-year-old Paramshila Devi. The Rs 20,000 she has earned in the last three years, doing various jobs under NREGA, has helped her survive after her husband's death two years ago.
Work under the Act may be increasingly hard to come by, she says, but NREGA is still an important part of her life, and that of many others here. She says, "What other work can I do? I can't do hard labour at this age. If it closes down, what are my options? The government has to give us work".
The government has so far refused to confirm or deny any attempt on its part to rework the Act, apart from saying that projects under the scheme need to be more productive, and linked to other government infrastructure schemes for rural areas.