The Bihar government recently won presidential praise regarding women’s rights, but Church workers and social activists on the ground in the eastern Indian state say the reality is very different. During a visit last week, Indian President Pratibha Patil lauded Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for helping women gain positions in panchayati raj (self-governing) institutions and initiating other schemes to boost their status. The president noted that Kumar’s 2009 literacy project to educate 4 million women had achieved 60 per cent success. Free books, uniforms and bicycles to ride to schools saw many girls enroll. Added to this was a 10,000 rupee sweetener (US$222) for becoming a matriculate. The government says it also plans to provide free healthcare and insurance schemes for the poor. Another project it plans to introduce in the next five years is family health and referral cards. However, all these schemes still remain mostly on paper or don’t match reality, claim workers among the poor. Much of what the government claims is either propaganda or undermined by graft, they say. “The government promotes schemes in the media but nothing gets implemented at grassroots level,” says Sister Ancy who works in Buxar diocese. Rita Devi, a village worker in Bakhtiarpur, says out of 50 seats reserved for women in village council elections only half were contested for. The other half went to their men. “It is the men who call the shots in the panchayat so this allotment is just a farce,” she said. Sapna Devi of Madhepura says Kumar’s many schemes for women benefit only middlemen. “Few high schoolgirls were given bicycles in our area, that was because they had to bribe the officials,” she said. Mamta Devi of Saharsa district said graft is a major problem. “To obtain subsidized loans through Self Help Groups, we had to pay a bribe as well as sign slip that we received the money in advance.” The government official beat up those who refused to sign the papers, she added. Congregation of Jesus Sister Shanti who has worked in Jamui district for the past ten years says the government claims to be giving healthcare to the poor, but it “hardly reaches the needy.” Notre Dame Sister Sabina says no ambulances are available carry poor emergency patients to hospitals in Sasaram district. Medical Mission Sister Asha Tobin, a surgeon, sums up the situation: “The government does a patchy work at grassroots level. Any awareness or development among the poor only takes place through the intervention and goodwill of NGOs rather than the government.” IE13800.1647
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