The Sawai Madhopur railway station in Rajasthan doesn’t let you overlook the fact that for most people getting off there, Ranthambore National Park is the preferred onward destination. Images of tigers adorn its walls — a clue as to why hotels, resorts, eateries and curio shops have mushroomed in and around the Sawai Madhopur town in the last few years.
This would explain why my cab driver couldn’t quite hide his surprise when I told him that my destination was Gandhi Park in Tonk town, the headquarters of the neighbouring district. He rolled out the names of some forts and palaces that I could visit on my way to Tonk.
The one-and-a-half-hour drive from Sawai Madhopur to Tonk was bumpy and rambling, but the mustard fields alongside the road made up for the discomfort. Mustard and wheat are the two main crops of this belt. In Uniara, the driver pointed to a plot of mustard fields, saying, “That’s mine.” But the lack of a good price for the crop has forced him to drive a taxi.
In Tonk town, just outside Gandhi Park — not far from the office of the district collector (DC) — I saw a white sleeper bus adorned with Rajasthani dolls and a banner attached to its front, that read: Jawabdehi Yatra.
Flagged off from Jaipur on December 1, 2015, the bus, along with a van and two jeeps, has been carrying about 70 people across Rajasthan as part of the Suchana Evam Rojgar Adhikar Abhiyan (Right to Information and Employment Drive) of the state’s well-known grassroots organisation Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).
The bus had already travelled through 17 districts when I saw it at Gandhi Park, and will complete the remaining 13 districts before arriving back at Jaipur for a public rally on March 1, completing 100 days on the road.
The yatris comprise members and volunteers from MKSS, the Delhi-based NGO Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), a network of voluntary organisations from Gujarat called Janpath and Ahmedabad-based collective Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP). Over the 100-day journey, with the help of local organisations, the yatris are seeking to mobilise public support for a jawabdehi kanoon, or accountability law, for public servants in the state, and help people record complaints regarding the non-delivery of facilities promised through various schemes and acts. The grievances will then be submitted to each district collector’s office to upload in the state portal called Rajasthan Sampark.
Over 5000 complaints recorded
Inside Gandhi Park, a crowd had gathered. Women of various ages in colourful ghagras and dupattas shared the space with men, also young and old, in dhotis and pagris, jeans and jackets. An MKSS worker announced in Hindi why the yatra has come to their town:
“We don’t represent any political party. We are asking questions of the Rajasthan government on behalf of the people. Why doesn’t every eligible individual get the state pension? Why are there no rations for the needy? Why are there no teachers in our children’s schools? Why is there no water in the taps? We are demanding a law that makes public servants accountable. The salaries of officers will have to be deducted if services are delayed because of them. If a collector’s child goes to the same school as yours, won’t the school have teachers then? If they use the same hospitals as yours, won’t doctors be there? If you are with us, raise your hands…”
With a group of young volunteers in tow, MKSS veteran Shankar Singh emphasised the message of rights against rampant inequity through a series of songs and a street play. To the sounds of the dholak and dong, they ask the government to answer:
“Jawabdehi yatra se sawal puche re, bolo kyun nehi re? Sashan walon jawab do sab ko ration nehi mile, aishi bhi janganana kyun? Jhuk gaye garib kyun, aisa kyun, sashan wale jawab do! Neta bhi chale re, collector bhi chale re, dhakka pehl chale. Dilli mein Bharat sarkar, Jaipur mein raj Sarkar, dhakka phel chale!”
The crowd swayed to the slogans, clapping and nodding. Meanwhile, a queue had formed around the corner; people had lined up with bundles of papers and cards of different colours issued by government authorities promising facilities like rations, housing, shelter and jobs. Some have received just a fraction of what has been promised; others nothing at all.
Zambian Bhil, who was present at the rally, said, “For generations, my family made a living from dancing bears on the streets. Some years ago, when we had to deposit our animals, the government promised us an alternate means of livelihood. It also promised us housing. Nothing has been provided. I now work as a casual labourer while my son drives a rickshaw. I want to ask the government, when will I get what was promised?”
Tonk has a sizeable population of Bhil adivasis, most of whom were traditional breeders of bears for public entertainment. Zaman’s story echoed many such along the queue.
“We don’t get regular rations. 5 kgs of wheat is allotted per person per month as per our ration card. But what you get in hand is 5 kgs per family every two months,” said Abu Mian Bhil.
Manzil Bhil added, “My family has suddenly stopped getting rations. We now get only 5 litres of kerosene every month. Why does the government think we can live only on kerosene?”
Chandi Bai, in her 60s, was baffled as to why her red card had suddenly been replaced by a blue card by the local authorities. Little did she know that the state government has rejigged the PDS beneficiary list to pull out over a crore of families from below the poverty line to above it, claiming that the previous Congress government had included excess names. While according to the National Food Security Act (NFSA), the government needed to identify the needy for food rations through the 2013 Socio-Economic Caste Census, now it is distributing new ration cards based on the 2002 census.
Banwari Bai, 76, had come to the rally with a different complaint: no aadhar card, so no ration. “I have my antyodaya card; I am a widow; I don’t earn anything. So why am I denied my rations?” she asked a DEF volunteer. The DEF, alongside submitting the grievances to each DC’s office in the form of a CD, is also digitising the data in order to track the grievances and evaluate the efficiency of the government in resolving them.
Also in the crowd was 68-year-old Sankriti Kaur Rajput. She joined the yatra in Ajmer as a volunteer and had been travelling in the bus since. “It is for our good,” she said, “Take my case. I have a pension card which is supposed to give me 500 rupees every month. But no pension has come to me for the last six months.” The bus stayed in each district for three days. So far, Sankriti Kaur had traveled through 15 districts in the bus.
By afternoon, hundreds of forms had been filled. Shishir Purohit of DEF told me, “Since the yatra began, we have recorded over 5000 complaints.”
A little distance away from the queue stood the van that has been accompanying the yatris. Provided by MAGP, the van – named ‘RTI on Wheels’ — is meant to be a window for people to learn about the Right to Information Act and how they can use it to get information from state departments. A motley crowd surrounded it in curiosity.
But all has not been smooth. An independent filmmaker documenting the proceedings faced the brunt of a mob attack. Kamal from MKSS told me, “A BJP MLA from Jhalawar district, Kanwar Lal Meena, led a mob attack on us in Aklera on January 16. They broke one of his [the filmmaker’s] cameras that was recording the attack.” Some arrests have been made in the case, but the MLA, whom the eyewitnesses say led the mob, is still not an accused — a reason for palpable anger among the organisers.
Later in the day, well-known MKSS activist Nikhil Dey led representatives of the organisations associated with the yatra to the DC’s office, while the others made a procession through the town. In the hour-long discussion with Tonk collector Rekha Gupta around the ‘main issues of ration, education, pension,’ hitches in the effective implementation of a range of government schemes came to the fore. The yatris put forth the following complaints made by the people: problems in PDS due to faulty machines (20% of them are not working in the district as per the DC’s office), the violation of the NFSA due to technicalities (such as no aadhar, no ration) and the sudden removal of names from the ration list, the lack of playgrounds, boundary walls and functional toilets in schools, the lack of facilities in government hospitals, and open sewage.
The next day, when the yatris conducted nukkad sabhas in the district’s Mankala, Uniara and Chot Ka Bhawara areas, the grievances were the same. In Choru village near Mankala, several school girls talked about being beaten by the police last October for staging a dharna seeking the appointment of teachers in their school. In Chot Ka Barwara, people noted their mobile phone numbers in a register so that they could be informed about the progress of the initiative. Many also donated whatever money that they could to fund the yatra.
The struggle continues
Speaking to The Wire, Dey said, “The state government has slashed 1.4 crore households from the BPL list. It is a bloodbath. Half the complaints we have received during the yatra are about food rations. Again and again, we are hearing about people wrongfully removed from the ration system. This is the most poor and vulnerable lot.” In the meeting with the Tonk collector the previous day, as in meetings with other DCs, he insisted that the authorities paint on the walls of ration shops, the lists of beneficiaries and how they were selected, so people could get the right information.
About the MKSS’s demand for an accountability law, the activist said, “We are seeking a law on the lines of RTI where penalties are stipulated for an official in case of delay in delivery of services. We also want an independent framework for sorting out public grievances. A draft bill is already in place.” Like the movement for the RTI act, he says that the MKSS does plan to take the campaign for the accountability law across the country, “but as of now, we want to get Rajasthan on board.”
By late evening, the yatra entered Sawai Madhopur town. I made a quick stopover at a roadside dhaba to taste the town’s famed namak ki chai. A few SUVs carrying tourists — no doubt back from the evening safari at the National Park — zoomd past, little knowing the everyday struggles of the people living in these areas.
By the time I caught up with the yatris in Sawai Madhopur town, they were at a dharamshala, all set for a hot meal and a night’s stay.