Using Villagers’ Voices to Make Democracy Work

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan is initiating jan sunvahis or people’s hearings in the villages of Rajasthan in an attempt to deliver basic rights like pension and ration to the suppressed.

A jan sunvahis or people’s hearing in session. Credit: Olina Banerji

A jan sunvahis or people’s hearing in session. Credit: Olina Banerji

In his recent speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Barack Obama delivered a salvo on the concept of democracy. “Democracy works, America, but we gotta want it – not just during an election year, but all the days in between,” he said and his words were met by a thunderous applause. It was a powerful declaration of a birth right  –  to participate in the perfection of their union.

The speech destroyed a unilateral view of democracy, attacking any majoritarian, patriotic or populist definitions of it. Instead, it celebrated democracy as the core work of humanity and civilisation.

Through his inspiring words, Obama crafted a version of democracy that is a conversation between the state and its citizens – a conversation with plenty of room to debate the meaning of absolute freedom, the benefits of a free market vs state controlled subsidies and the equality of opportunities. The metaphor of a conversation, or a negotiation, makes it possible to view democracy as a journey and not a destination. It sets up social and political relations in a way that doesn’t crystallise power or privilege. It sends a strong message that everyone is a part of this conversation with no one voice dominating it.

True democratic work then is a messy, loud affair. It lies in the vast space between the political left and right, the rich and poor, the believer and the atheist. Meeting this ideal of democracy is a matter of constant practice, especially in a country like India, where humanity is a thick, uneven paste. It is all the work in between the perception of fairness and the reality of bias.

For over two decades, one group has put their noses to the grindstone, cranking out a grassroots version of democracy from the lofty ideals in the preamble. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), formed and led by Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey, has worked in the villages of Rajasthan to build ranks with the people and delivered promises that the state often falls short of. They have a remarkable stamina for withstanding the oppressive state machinery and have broken through the nexus of caste, class and corruption to ensure basic human rights for the people.

At village Bawadi-ki-Guar, in the shadow of a house that neither has job guarantee under NREGA, no ration benefits and no alternative means of income. Roy, Singh and Dey listen to the grievances of the five-member family who live here in virtual penury. Credit: Olina Banerji

At village Bawadi-ki-Guar, in the shadow of a house that neither has job guarantee under NREGA, no ration benefits and no alternative means of income. Aruna Roy, Shankar Singh and Nikhil Dey listen to the grievances of the five-member family who live here in virtual penury. Credit: Olina Banerji

Since their inception in 1990, they have climbed deeper into the cracks of our democratic framework and have pieced together a popular people’s movement. From campaigns to end the illegal occupation of land by the entitled thakurs, to the ‘hamara paise, hamara hisaab’ (our money, our right) campaign under the right to information movement, to their most recent efforts to guarantee pension benefits to the aged and disabled, they have been doing the complex work of agitating, negotiating, delivering and fighting alongside those whose voices the world’s largest democracy supresses.

From their tiny hut in Devdungri, the people of MKSS have altered the conversation between the state and its citizens, seeding the dream of a democracy that governs with its people.

Collective power: People’s evidence vs public record

The collective is a great comfort. It’s a wonderful thing. The collective shares your wins and losses. There is space to dissent, but there’s also a will to agree” – Aruna Roy

 Jan sunvahis or people’s hearing is like a modern day darbar. The lack of a king or a figurehead is apparent and deliberate. A facilitator manages the conversation between the citizens, while the nominated panchayat member listens. The MKSS has been holding these sunvahis to conduct social audits on the delivery of essential services by the government.

A particular hearing at Tikarwas was to establish whose social security pensions had been stopped by the state. Even though the amount is a meagre Rs 500, the aged, the disabled and vulnerable women depend heavily on this security. Among those at the hearing is an old man who hasn’t received his pension for over a year and has been declared dead by the state. Like him, a widowed mother of two has been waiting for the arrival of her widow pension.

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At the Tikarwas gram sabha to establish who is dead, who is alive and whose goat mistakenly made it to the pension lists instead of the owner. The mass cancellation of pensions by the state has left many people stranded without another source of income. Credit: Olina Banerji

Both of them have spent much beyond their pension amount of Rs 500 to get these benefits reinstated. What they spend on transport, food and bribes – which is often financed through petty loans – in order to get their pension, is money that they never see again.

At these jan sunhavis, the people have to present themselves – quite literally – in evidence of the fact that they are still alive. This collection of ‘presumed dead’ is now rousing to demand their rights from the state.

A string of MKSS-inspired groups is conducting surveys and social audits in villages to look for these people who are wasting away behind closed doors, without rations or pension. Beginning in October 2015, the Rajasthan government hastily cancelled pensions for 7 lakh beneficiaries, fearing that the money had been given out without a proper audit of where it was landing.

Of these, about 2.97 lakh pensioners had been declared dead or missing. A survey conducted in the region has revealed that many of these pensioners are still alive and are bemused by the state’s swiftness in killing them off.

“Are you alive?” Singh asks them at the sunvahi, his tone is jovial and familiar. The presumed dead respond in unison, “Yes, here we are.” The whole exercise is tragicomic.

When a huge number of presumed dead, approximately 1 lakh of the 2.97 lakh turned up alive, the government could no longer ignore the force of this collective evidence. It unleashed an intense scrutiny into the government’s pension records, which was followed by massive protests in Bhim and in other districts of the state, in demand of a paper trail for the lost pension money. The government finally declared that they would begin the laborious process of combing through their records to find the loopholes and take corrective measures. The Rajasthan government has now opened the process of reverification of all the 7 lakh pensions that were cancelled.

The involvement of Dainik Bhaskar, which through its own reporting unearthed many of these living dead, sparked a national conversation on the inefficacy of the benefits delivery system in India and the on the steps that had been taken to fix it. These steps are failing because they have such little input or support from the people. The social audits are a proof that unilateral decision making cannot supplant learning from the people themselves about their issues.

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The jan sunvahi is space to witness the role of people in making a democracy function. Credit: Olina Banerji

Faith healing: To believe is to survive

In India, democracy is an act of faith. There is an innate dependence on its structures by those who are most wronged by it –  like the old and the poor in places like Bhim and Tikarwas. For them, engagement with democracy, is both a right and a necessity. The MKSS team refers to it as the “will to live” of these ex-pensioners, who don’t have much to live on, but respond passionately when asked what they would do first if their pension was restarted.

“I would buy flour,” says 82-year-old Daku Devi, who can tell the time of day only by the shadows cast on her house. The nights are difficult for her. She lives alone and can barely move. Her house doesn’t have electricity and she is at the mercy of her neighbours to feed her from time to time. She is forced to step out of her small, dingy room to feel her way around the edges of the hut, behind which she relives herself. There is no company or succor, and without the meagre pension, no food.

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Daku Devi in her hut as the light fades from the evening sky. Credit: Olina Banerji

In the urban and privileged world, democracy is an abstract concept. We seldom have to queue up at a communal water pump, travel for days to see a public official, or defend our existence to scraps of paper that deny it. For the entitled, democracy is maybe an idea worth fighting for online through a ‘freedom of speech’ campaign, but for those living on the margins of this democracy, its rules and processes and its paperwork is the only evidence that they still exist for the state.

They survive a drought or a famine by enlisting in a right to work programme, or by using their right to food entitlement. They aspire to educate their children through the right to education laws, or use maternal and child welfare schemes that anganwadis in every district of the country ought to provide. Instead, they find that the state to be lacking in intention, efficiency and political will to make any of this really work. When faced with this reality, they fight back with the tools provided to them by the state. They fight to stay relevant and for letting the government know that they are still part of the conversation.

This fight gets more complicated every day as the state adds smoke to the screen. The newest is the omnipresent push of the central government to link every delivery system to an Aadhaar card.

With the validation of their identity and existence reduced to a card, its not surprising that people are falling through the cracks in the system. The idea of linking benefits or direct-benefit transfers for pensions, subsidies etc., isn’t problematic in itself, but its implementation, with erratic biometric testing and slow internet connectivity combined with the scope for human error and perniciousness, is wiping out large number of people from the government’s rolls. Especially those whose hands are too old and gnarled to leave thumbprints or those who cannot travel to PDS centres because of their age or disability.

These numbers, when added to the general inefficiencies of the new platform – mostly because the infrastructure to support an online, Aadhaar-linked, mass information system doesn’t exist – are significant. These people have all but evaporated from government records.

The recourse to this ruptured Aadhaar system is a human one. A people’s information system  –  of jan sunvahis, social audits and awareness campaigns  –  can hold a state accountable for what it has promised to deliver to the people. Commonly in a social audit, the number of services delivered, the beneficiaries and the money spent is all made public, publicly. This means that these records aren’t hidden in a corner of a government office or on the internet, but displayed by the panchayat at their local offices or at another central place in the village. The people can directly access the records of their lives instead of being cut off by red tape and inscrutable rules and language.

An evening chat with Rajima, a long-time leader of the MKSS movement. Credit: Olina Banerji

An evening chat with Rajima, a long-time leader of the MKSS movement. Credit: Olina Banerji

An active community, hungry for information and action, can form a live feedback loop through this public conversation, reporting if they’ve been killed off in government records, if their pension is stuck or is erroneously given to a neighbour or if the local kirana store-owner is refusing to part with rations that they are entitled to.

If the state really wants to know the pulse on its Aadhaar-fueled efforts, or if it wants to restore faith in its democratic citadels, it must engage with these hubs of protest. They are the only ones participating in their democracy, highlighting massive leaks without sophisticated data and tools and rooting for the constitution in its purest form.

The facilitator plays a significant role in a participatory democracy. The State can never do this alone. We need these public spaces in every village  – to make sure our democracy is doing right by us  –  Nikhil Dey

Soft power: Talking through songs

In the fight to be heard, words aren’t the only thing that work. The people’s culture  –  their songs, stories, festivals  –  is a handy surrogate, since it absorbs every detail of their lives. This conversation of equality and justice, says Singh, is dry and hard without the music, prose and humour, which are the weapons of the common people.

“This is our fight, not just Aruna’s,” says the ghagra paltan (skirt platoon). It is what a group of determined women minstrels call themselves. “Iss ghaghra paltan ne toh kanoon badal diya,” (This skirt platoon has changed the law) is how district officers christened them when they managed to get NREGA records opened under the RTI. They were an integral part of the movement, singing and agitating for ‘humara paisa, humara hisaab’. They were demanding their right to know who was eating up their NREGA money.

“The men in our villages stopped us from singing at a national platform in Delhi. When women are called upon to sing for every wedding and funeral in the village, then why shouldn’t we sing for the country?” they demanded to know.

Written by the unpolished bards of the movement, these songs are an oral history of the people, linking one generation of protestors with another. They were created on the road, as MKSS made its way through Rajasthan on buses, trucks and even on foot, threading a modern, constitutional story with local tunes. Still sung widely in cracked and weathered voices, these songs are the people’s version of the constitution. They inspire a sense of collective identity between the weak and the poor and gives them a language in which to voice their dream for their democracy.

Aruna Roy talks about a new political discourse to re-new our democracy. Credit: Olina Banerji

Aruna Roy talks about a new political discourse to re-new our democracy. Credit: Olina Banerji

Crafting the great conversation.

“Democracy needs a discourse. How are we to take decisions otherwise? We need a non violent political discourse for these times,” says Roy emphatically. Her speech echoes Obama’s non-pious, realistic one delivered many worlds away. The similarity is that of destroying the false dichotomies and the vanilla versions of history and politics where ideology and propaganda refuse to let other versions in.

This intellectual rumination seems far removed from lived realities in Bhim, but the heat and dust of desert hasn’t weakened the constant reinvention of the progressive mind. At the School for Democracy in Bhim, MKSS now dreams of hosting intellectual jousts that they believe will shape the direction of our democracy. This is an agitation of a different kind, one that combines intellectual privilege with the saltiness of earthy protests. Based only on the aadhaar or an underlying belief in the constitution, this conversation about democracy aims to be an open platform for competing views.

There is a desperate need for these spaces of participation now more than ever. This is the ultimate realisation of our democracy for all of our people.

  • amateur

    Greatly Written. Loved the Introduction!