People power at 25


Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) has completed 25 years this year. In the midst of their hectic day, some ordinary people who have taken this organization forward, take time off to reflect on their past struggles that have resulted in landmark legislations like the RTI, NREGA and social audits. They also get ready to spearhead more such movements that give power to most ordinary folks. Rajasthan Post walks and talks with them        

At Bhim, Rajsamand ( Rajasthan) Just 15 minutes before 75-year-old Mohan Ram died in March 2013, he was demanding information from a Primary Health Centre in Barar, Rajsamand.

Mohanba (as he was fondly called in village) was an old, rickety man suffering from TB and was at the health centre to collect his own medicines.   But he thought it would be good to monitor the Janani Suraksha Scheme for pregnant women and thus asked for more information about it. He did get his information but collapsed and died at the gates of the PHC.

The hut at Devdungri, which has powered many important legislations like RTi, NREGA and given the poor voice The hut at Devdungri, which has powered many important legislations like RTi, NREGA and given the poor voiceMohanba was an ordinary man with an extraordinary zeal. Poor and from a lower caste, he had gone against the Panchayat and officials, as he steadfastly refused to accept daily anything less than what was minimum wage. He said he would prefer to starve rather than give in.

Mohanba put his efforts behind an emerging demand for copies of muster rolls so that the powerful exploiters could be exposed. He used to say with conviction that “until the records came out, the poor would always be considered liars and kaam chors, and the real thieves would always occupy the high moral ground.”

Like him, there are many other grassroot crusaders like Mohanba from this part of Rajasthan, who may not have had their two-second fame on TV but have shown the world that they are tireless fighters who can wage a battle against injustice, despite all odds and still come out triumph to secure a life of dignity not only for themselves but for countless others like them.

There’s Sushila Devi, who now works at Bunker Roy’s Tilonia village (137 Km away from here) in Ajmer. She had stunned the government when she answered the reason for wanting the Right to Information at a presser in New Delhi.  

To a question “Why do you a semi-literate woman want the RTI?, she had said way back in 1996: “When I send my son to the market with Rs 10, I ask him for accounts. The government spends billion of rupees in my name. Government money is our money, why should I not ask for accounts. Hamara Paisa, hamara hisaab.” She thus defined RTI for the entire country.

A nukkad natak being conducted for NREGA workers by Shankar Singh
A nukkad natak being conducted for NREGA workers by Shankar Singh

All of these common people gained the confidence to go out and fight their battles at this nondescript, sleepy town Bhim in southern Rajasthan with the help of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which is a people’s organization.   

With vast stretches of barren, dull landscape, conventional houses, ordinary and laid back people, nothing in this little town even remotely suggests that it has been the nerve centre of extraordinary movements.

This insignificant place has powered many important legislations like Right to Information (RTI) Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and groomed many foot-soldiers, who have given India words like transparency and accountability, unheard of in local and central governance till then.

This year the MKSS has completed 25 years.

“This is a special occasion for all of us and we take time off to look back at our journey of struggles through songs, stories and events. We would also remember all the ordinary village folks, who came together and gave us strength through the year,” says Nikhil Dey, one of the social activists of MKSS. The organization was formed by like-minded trio Magsaysay winner Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey.

The MKSS set up by the people of the area in 1990, aimed to strengthen participatory democratic processes. It took along with it ordinary village folks to ensure a life of dignity and justice for them.

The movement that started from a kutcha (mud) house in Devdungri, 8 km away, has given strength and voice to people. The house, which has stood witness to movements for RTI, NREGA and social audit, remains the same with thatched roof and neat rooms with named trunks and utensils and courtyard.

Mohanba’s wife Chunnibai, 68, still lives there, working and warmly welcoming anybody who wishes to meet her.

Mohanba’s wife Chunnibai
Mohanba’s wife Chunnibai

Chunnibai says: “Our struggle started the day when we refused to accept Rs 4 instead of the Rs 11 earmarked for us. Most of those working with us did not want to take the risk. They readily accepted the Rs 4. There was no way we could see the muster roll. If we protested we were not given any work. Getting to see Panchayat records was unheard of in those days. Till the RTI came along. RTI has put a fear in government officials that even poor people like us can protest against the corruption and get things done.”

MKSS was born out of a struggle for community land held illegally by a feudal landlord. The subsequent struggle for minimum wages made it evident to the people, that transparency and accountability of systems of governance are basic to access any right.

By mid 1994, MKSS had formulated a specific demand for copies of financial records of expenditure incurred in the local government institutions including Panchayats.

However, since there was no legal entitlement to access relevant information even within the Panchayat, the MKSS had to mostly rely on informal means and sympathetic officials for access to these documents. Once procured, these records were closely examined by the people of the concerned Panchayats. Public hearings were organised where residents came together to verify and audit the work of their Panchayat through individual and collective testimonies. Thus, the demand for transparency, accountability, and redressal through social audit began to take shape.

The first Public Hearing the MKSS organised in December 1994 established the importance of information for the people, and exposed the official opposition to disclosure of records. This flagged off the struggle for the people’s Right to Information.

“RTI is our only weapon to fight and get what is rightfully ours. If it wasn’t implemented, we would be nowhere. Corruption has come down relatively. Many who cheated have given back the money they siphoned away from Panchayats. Many sarpanchs are in jail today. This is all because of RTI,  ” says Balu Lal of Maandal, Bhilwara district.

 

Every year on 1st May, Bhim ( 330 km from Jaipur), Bhim pulsates with a rare energy as it sees a convergence of ordinary village people, activists, social workers. They celebrate their past, ongoing struggles and renew vows to keep their morale high for future battles.  

Here the May Day mela is not just about labourers or their struggles. Here a unique mela, being held annually since the last 25 years, celebrates their struggles and live issues.

This unusual mela also reconfirms the belief that ordinary folks can empower themselves through their will and determination, no matter how difficult the journey is.   

“The consistency of this single-day mela held over such a long period reaffirms that ordinary people can get right-based legislation passed if they take it upon themselves,” says Dey.

He adds: “This 25th year is a special occasion for all of us to look back and reminisce about all the events and people who were part of the various struggles that we waged. It will also give us strength for all our future struggles.”

“The continuing relevance of the mela is that workers are uniting even in contemporary times and have effected important national policy legislations like RTI, NREGA and social audits.”    

On their 25th year, they plan to start a mazdoor union in unorganized sector as MKSS says around 93% of the India’s workforce work in the unorganized sector.

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