[[Adhip Amin, a recent undergraduate from Christ College Bangalore, lived in Mahant Maniyari at the SPSS headquarters in July 2015.]
After spending fifty – two, interesting and somewhat exhausting hours in a train, from Bangalore, with an ex- Indian Air Force fighter pilot who flew Indira Gandhi, an ex – CBI chief of the South Indian branch who apparently interviewed Rajiv Gandhi during the Bofors scam, and a young engineer about to begin his internship with a microchip company, I arrived in Patna on an extremely hot and sultry afternoon.
The following day, on a windy morning, I travelled to Mahant Manyari village, where the Samaj Parivarthan Shakiti Sangathan (SPSS) has its headquarters (HQ) and where it is most active. Mahant Manyari is 70 kilometres north of the part of the Ganga which hosts Patna on her banks. As is the case with the rest of the Indo – Gangetic plain, the land is flat so much so that distinguishing between land and a water body is hard; the horizon is so clear that one can see an individual walking or farming from probably a few kilometres away – one of my best memories of the village is waking up one morning and walking out to the compound to see a man cycle on a narrow road between two large trees far enough, but not enough for one to not notice them together, with the morning sun making the image clear to see, difficult to imagine and easy to remember.
Sanjay Sahni, founder of the SPSS, and electrician par – excellence, picked me up from the old and venerable – Mahant Maniyari High School, incepted in 1928. The school serves not only as an educational institution, but also as an important landmark as there is nobody who knows not of the school in the area. After we greeted each other he took me to the HQ. When I entered the premises a few women in the entrance greeted me with ‘’Zindabad!” I responded back feebly and timidly. Living in Bangalore, I was completely unused to this sort of enthusiasm and energy, and the causes of it. As the days went by I would unfortunately and frustratingly let this division come in our way. I would often feel like an outsider.
In the time I was there, my work was rather unstructured. I primarily shadowed Sanjay around, trying to understand the demand for MGNREGA, the sentiments that the program generated, where it went wrong, how the SPSS would mobilize and act in the face of fraud and corruption, the caste dynamics of the villages and rural economy, and of course what Sanjay and Santoshji thought and felt about all of these issues.
The staff of the SPSS are the beneficiaries, and most of them are women. As Sanjay likes to put it: all of them, including him, are part-timers. He spends 10 out of 30 days in Delhi working as an electrician and the remaining time in the village, and many of the karyakarthas too spend a significant amount of time either in farming or animal husbandry. The prime motivation of the SPSS is to empower society to deal with the state, to act collectively in the face of misappropriation and corruption, in a non – violent, and non – partisan manner.
Here lies the brilliance of SPSS: collective action not only for achieving a political and economic end, but also for self – improvement and for strengthening the individual – to enable each one to stand on her own feet, and be independent. Participation in SPSS in not restricted to only activism but also to teaching and learning. Sanjay believes in constantly talking and persuading people – “bas mein har roz sirf bolta hun’’ [“I only spend all day talking”]. Time and again, one can hear Sanjay reiterate: ‘’mein sirf rasta dikhatha hun, mein unka kam nahi kartha hun, na karna chatha hun. Mera lakshya yeh hai ki log mere upar depend hi na kare.’’ [I only show the path; I don’t their work nor do I want to. My goal is that people must not depend on me”].This was not simply a political statement,
when I got there, Sanjay was in the midst of reforming and decentralizing the SPSS to smaller and smaller units, a lot of his functions had been allocated to a number of veterans within the organization. His wish was to decentralize it to the level of the individual. This is now called the ‘Small is Beautiful Campaign’ –Har aadmi aapne aap mein ek karyakartha hai.Every person is an independent activist.
While I was there, Sanjay spent considerable energy on the structural change and also on what he does daily: auditing of the MGNREGA. Mazdoors come to the headquarters typically if they haven’t been paid their dues. He compares the number of days that people have actually worked in the scheme with the information available on the website and with wages people have actually got with that what they have been allocated online. He then writes a letter to the authorities highlighting the discrepancy and request to take action, if this happens on a large scale, usually an andholan is announced.
When I got there the mood was tense and people were quite agitated because no work had been provided for 7 – 8 months. The allocation of work under MGNREGA has reduced considerable due to two reasons: one, a broad, nationwide reason is that the disbursal of funds has reduced considerably since last year and b) PRS (the panchayat Rozgar Sevak), who are responsible for allocating work, were on strike due to lack of payment.
When I once told them that the delays was probably in preparation for cash transfer because the government thinks that too much money is going into MGNREGA, Lakhi Devi, a member of SPSS, posed a very simple but powerful question: “har kanun mein brashtachar ho raha hai, tho har kanun bandh karegi sarkar?” [“There is corruption in every scheme. Does that mean the government will close all of them?”] She was questioning the ability of the state. Further, one can time and again hear people deeming all politicians as corrupt: ‘’sab chor hai’’, which hits at the legitimacy of the state.
Fieldwork is tough, and especially for somebody coming from the comfort of a nice city with very nice weather, it requires discipline – equanimity of mind and a religious like sacrifice for comfort. But as one goes along, one can see clearly the sheer clamour for thoughtfulness that SPSS appeals to. I realized, with my limited stay there that this not only makes thinking about policy more honest, but also cleanses the intellect of any wanton falsehoods, and hopefully, makes one humble.
— Adhip Amin.