Wednesday, July 1, 2009

People’s movements and democratic processes


(You can read a shorter version of this in my story for The Economic Times.)

People’s movements and democratic processes
(Organized by Center for Culture, City University of New York – 12 May 2009)

When Nikhil Dey dropped out of the final year of his undergraduate degree at the George Mason University in the late 1980s, his parents, were far from happy. Although he cannot justify the decision, he does not entirely regret it. At a time when his father was posted at the Indian Embassy in Washington D.C., he felt he knew more about ordinary US citizens than he did about fellow Indians. He chose a curious path for himself. Dey joined Aruna Roy and Shanker Singh in Devdungri, a tiny village in Rajasthan in 1987.

Along with many others, the three of them became the founding members of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in 1990; a workers’ and peasants organization. MKSS linked the Right to Information (RTI) to survival and livelihood to bring about transparency in the functioning of the government. From its small beginnings, in the MKSS area, the struggle grew into a widespread campaign that culminated in the passage of the Right to Information Act in 2005. Singh, noted for his engagement in peoples’ politics through street theatre, song and puppetry has brought issues of poverty and democratic governance to the people for more than two decades.

There were many points , when this was a lonely struggle, Dey recalls. People laughed at them because they were fighting for change against seemingly impossible odds. At the time when they started, there had been a drought for 7 years. When the team decided that they would not seek institutional funding, many people, including some of their friends thought that this model would be unsustainable. (Note that, MKSS has no office bearers.)

Everything had to be defined through the people, who had come together to fight the injustices meted out to them. The villagers, he said are very astute politically. The first problem was the practical irony and difficulty in seeking justice from the very people who had denied the people justice, namely the administration.

The group conducted two hunger strikes on minimum wages. For 10-12 days MKSS workers had gone without food. But much to their consternation, this only energized public officials and the government because they had nothing to lose. They realized that these paradigms may not work.

The people wanted documents to be used as weapons - it was such a powerful notion. They wanted to know why injustice was meted out to them. Bills, vouchers and workers lists of public works showed information about people who did not exist going to work, including those who had died but were shown as drawing wages. Public officials who had held a high moral ground could now be questioned.

This information was placed before the people in public hearings. The idea arose that these documents could be read. That created drama and a “hungama”. Many people boycotted public hearings. Those that went into hiding had to eventually come out. “Public audits have a straight demand. Ethics are crucial to Indian politics,” Dey says.

In the course of time, there were several slogans coined by the group. “You cannot have an alien form of communication to mobilize people, you will have to use their language and their symbols and to be a part of their lifestyle to forge any change,” Dey says.

The first slogan was the realization that it was not government money, but “My Money, My Wage.” This put in place the question of accountability. Why were people being denied wages and where did that money go? Another was “Humara Paisa, Humara Hisaab” – the accountability for our money. The next one was equating the right to know with the right to life. Hum Jaanegey, Hum Jeeyengey – the right to full and open information. “Yeh Paisa Humare Aapka, Nahi kisi ke Baap ka, Yeh Desh Humare Aapka, Naho Kisi ke Baap Ka.” (This is our money, our country, not somebody’s father’s!)

The slogans pointed to the changing relationship with the state. There was a conceptual change in approach. The vote was seen as a share in governance and power - the fact that the citizen can exercise their sovereign rights over the democratic system.

The ideology of MKSS is not defined by language, as much as through action Dey maintains. “Call it Marxist, Gandhian or Democratic, the language is people’s language, defined by them.” Collective action makes things possible, he says.

The group conducted a major dharna for 40 days where people who were dependent on daily wages sacrificed their pay for more than a month to spread the message of the Right to Information. They organized a sit-in in the middle of a market place in a place called Beawar in Rajasthan. Over a period of time, it reached out to the country. Activists and journalists from across India poured in to see it firsthand. It took the shape of a national campaign. In order to draft the legislation, the group needed to reach out to other campaigns across the country, it needed legal expertise to draft the law. An ex-Supreme Court judge P B Sawant who was also the chairperson of the press council did the major ground work. The campaign also tapped into a larger collective of students, media and others.

It was important for MKSS to forge connections because they found in the course of a struggle for land, that feudal landlords and rich farmers often dug up connections deep enough to go all the way to the Union Cabinet to push their case. It was then that the members decided to use their connections in political parties, bureaucracy and the media. You needed trade unions and mainstream political parties to push the legislation in the Parliament. “It has been a long journey,” Dey says.


He narrated the example of a Dalit boy who sought information about how the Sarpanch (head) of the village, had spent public money meant for major repair works for the school building. The boy suspected that the Sarpanch had merely painted the building without undertaking major repairs and instead pocketed the money. So he put in a Right to Information application. In one stroke the power relationship between the Dalit student and the upper caste Sarpanch was altered. The Sarpanch threatened suicide and pleaded for the application to be withdrawn, but the boy stood resolute. By raising one question, he had brought duty upon the Sarpanch to answer it. That was a strong message. Everyone in the village knew that Sarpanch had reasons to hide the information.

There are people who have wielded this weapon of Right to Information effectively, sometimes putting in two or more RTI applications per week. Public officials have been sent to jail for messing up the state-subsidized Public Distribution System (PDS) of food, officials from the electricity department have been taken to task for not ensuring regular power supply or electrification of villages, among other such examples. Officials who stole tractors were impounded and sent to jail. Powerful government servants who misused SC/ST records were brought to book.

The colonial system of keeping records is one bureaucratic responsibility that the RTI campaign turned on its head. What was once used by the masters to meet their own needs, has now become a powerful tool for the people. The paper trail is strong. Numerous experts have logged into the RTI to unearth details about genetically modified crops, pollution control, SEZs, agrarian crisis among other issues, he says.

Dey discussed an interesting anecdote about the World Bank and the Delhi Water Supply. For some reason PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was always awarded the contract to be appointed as a consultant for advising the Delhi government on water supply. Under the open bidding process, PwC failed to win it several times, even after tweaking the conditions in order to make it amenable for the audit company. Information revealed on the basis of an RTI application to the Delhi government revealed inconsistencies in the way PwC was appointed each time. The World Bank had a ready template to solve Delhi’s water problems: privatization, It was quick to deny discrepancies in the way the consultant was appointed. Further, when confronted with tough activists who wanted to scrutinize all Bank documents concerning Delhi Water supply, top officials of the bank refused to divulge information citing worldwide disclosure norms that it had to follow. These norms were far from being transparent, Dey says.

The RTI act makes it important for the officials to respond to the query in 30 days, else they stand to be fined. Dey notes, that it is the officials now, who are eager to dispense with the information before the 30 day period is over! At the same time, many have destroyed official records. (This now attracts a penalty.)

Activists at MKSS have had to go back to the grassroots to see how the law was being implemented. They have to constantly work the nuts and bolts of the system, help people file a RTI application, open a bank account, follow up with why compensation was denied.

A large part of the dialectic is to repose faith in volunteers. “If we do not acknowledge it to ourselves, we will be weakening ourselves considerably,” he says. “We have to keep at it day after day”. RTI activists are frustrated when errant officials are not penalized.

Over the years, activists have been beaten, killed and have faced innumerable dangers. Last year, an activist, Lalit Kumar Mehta, was brutally murdered in Jharkhand. During social audits, Mehta exposed irregularities in the employment guarantee scheme in the Palamau district of the state. Mehta was closely associated with Jean Dreze, a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), a body overseeing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The State often uses means that are more sophisticated than using the gun. The first step is to pretend to concede space to demands and then close it altogether, Dey says. In Jhalawar, the former CM’s district in Rajasthan, they attacked different teams from the MKSS simultaneously. In other parts of India the chances of finding a support group like the MKSS may not be easy, he says.

Referring to Binayak Sen, the doctor and human rights’ activist who was imprisoned in Chattisgarh under draconian state laws, for his alleged links with Maoists, Dey says, “The State wants Binayak Sen to become a symbol for the middle classes – an example to show that even if you are seen a Mao sympathizer, this is the justice which will be meted out to you.” Sen was released on bail recently after being held for 2 years.

If there is a regime change in the elections, it can be a litmus test for the RTI campaign, Dey says. “RTI is a genie that is out of the bottle. There is some degree of momentum and immunity that this people’s movement has gained that should even withstand regime change,” he says.

Time and again, people have demanded the right to know. It is a kind of passion to overcome injustice, when they have nothing else at stake but to question. “The vanguard of this change has been the poor. They have changed the discourse. The poor get on to the streets unlike the middle classes who keep debating issues from the comforts of their living rooms,” he says.

The RTI act was threatened with crippling amendments, and when it dawned on us that the Establishment that the law was actually being used

The larger question is can the Right to Information law also make the private sector accountable? There is a provision under Section 2F in the RTI act that enables any citizen to ask the government to get information from private companies that come under the jurisdiction of any other kind of a law including the Industrial Disputes Act, the Companies Law, the Pollution Control Act, Medical Practices Act. After all, we need a powerful State, to say fight a powerful corporation.

More significant than most other development is that of the Goa state government revoking the SEZ act, according to Dey. This has gone on to show that there are democratic spaces within the current system however faulty. A single state government can count and make a difference. Initially trade minister Kamal Nath had maintained no state can renege of the SEZ Act. Goa is interesting because of its non-peasant population unlike most other Indian states. “I think it is a far more powerful message than even Nandigram,” Dey says.


“The premise that the State cannot withdraw from basic responsibilities was worth fighting for. We must get the State to reflect our aspirations.” The formulation of “demand” has taken various forms over the years. When the group demanded for food for work, it was received with skepticism. At a time when 70 million tons of food grains were rotting in government godowns (storage) in 2001, they demanded food for work. The then Chief Minister of Rajasthan had said resignedly that the reports of starvation deaths will continue in a country as poor as India unless there is an employment guarantee act.

When the Hindu right wing party BJP, was distributing weapons including tridents called “Trishul” in Hindi, in the hope of polarizing the Hindu majority state of Rajasthan along communal lines, MKSS came up with the following formulation: Talwar Nahi, Trishul Nahi, Har Haath ko Kaam do. (Don’t give us swords or tridents, give us work.)

These are basic issues at stake here. “This is no big philosophical question. These issues are so real that you cannot debate it. It’s a question of getting that Rs 100 for wages. In that reality it is a struggle to get that Rs 100 by organizing and demonstrating,” Dey says.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that came into force in 2005 provides a legal guarantee for 100 days of employment every fiscal year to rural adults willing to do public work-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage. Under the Act, any rural citizen can demand work within 5 kilometers, and if they don’t get work,they can demand an unemployment allowance. (This is a country where unorganized labor has had little State support). Nearly 7 million people got work under the scheme, more than $1.5 billion has been spent in Rajasthan under this scheme alone, Dey says. In Rajasthan, despite having a government different from the Centre, the money came on time. More than 5 million bank accounts were opened, and 70% of the workers were women.

It is interesting that during the recent elections, it was difficult to find workers, because many of them were at NREG worksites! It is a huge opportunity for the rural working class. There definitely have been some gains made. It has stemmed the migration from the rural areas to the cities. Rich farmers, on the other hand in Punjab have complained about not enough migrant labor from Bihar.

As a result the cost of labor in the rural areas have increased, because people now have a choice between minimum wages guaranteed by the government and those offered by rich farmers to work on their land holdings. The financial crisis would have hit the rural Indian much harder without NREG. “Markets are full, people are buying things, it is relatively better. The macro effect of the NREG on the economy is undeniable,” he says. (Though a few economists gracing pink papers disagree. The scheme is predictably plagued with issues of implementation bottlenecks and corruption.) However, the NREG is politically attractive. No one can speak against it in public, he maintains. “There is an international debate around the NREG, even as a powerful international lobby supports direct cash transfers.”

Conditional Cash Transfers based on the model in Latin America is a populist one but it will simply not work in a country like India. It will put power back into those who will dispense this cash for the people, Dey feels.


Those in the MKSS interested in electoral politics have to soon determine, if they want to work to form themselves political party. “It is a difficult decision that needs to be made sooner than later. Conventional people’s politics may not work. We can’t escape electoral politics. (The Gram Sabha is the purest form of direct democracy, he feels). A civil society cannot encompass everything. It is an amorphous definition. All kinds of people can claim to represent the civil society – including the right wing RSS! Political parties have stopped organizing on peoples issues and requiring the rank and file to work on such issues. The spaces of democratic politics, outside elections have been left to be filled by groups such as the MKSS,” Dey says.

There is plurality in method and action since we are a diverse society. MKSS would never have succeeded on its own if it had not reached out to other movements. We have the same binding Constitutional/legal framework, and although our approach may be different, it will be possible for us to work together to become a voice of subaltern resistance, he says.

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