(In December 2012, M.R.Sharan, an SPSS supporter and researcher, visited Ratnauli. This is his account from that and previous visits)
Sanjay called me up yesterday. It was a beautiful day: nice and soft, the sort that Bangalore would be proud of. He asked if he could file for unemployment benefits for his mazdoors under the NREGA. They had asked for work from the 15th of October, filing in applications and receiving ‘receivings’ (documents from the Government stating that a request has been submitted); now that nearly a month had passed and no work provided, the next logical, lawful step was to file for unemployment benefits, he suggested.
This might sound reasonable, but in a country where most of us are constantly demanding rights and not realising that that in itself is an oxymoron (If someone needs to demand– not obtain, or even ask for– what is rightfully theirs, then isn’t that a matter of shame?), this is unheard of. In practice, people are happy if they get work. Few are like the mazdoors in Sanjay’s village; virtually no one approaches the state for work. Everyone simply waits, like they do for the monsoons or the Ration Shop owner.
But Sanjay’s mazdoors are not normal. Sanjay is anything but normal himself. Knowing all this, I tell him that he is fully within his rights to file for unemployment benefits. I also tell him that these are indeed strange times in Bihar: the State pool of funds for NREGA has run dry.
This is a grave scenario. What’s worse, this has been the case for the past fifty days and is caused by a combination of incompetence, inefficiency, improper systems, poor luck, an unsympathetic Centre and limited infrastructure. Fifty days without money to pay for the single largest social security scheme in the country. Incredibly, it took the state a full three days to even realize something was wrong.
I could do something, I tell Sanjay, I could first find out if his Panchayat had money in its account to fund NREGA works.
There are very few external benefits of being a ‘third-party-evaluator’ on a fund-flow system for NREGA payments. This was one of those– I had access to every Panchayat’s Savings Bank account in Bihar.
I do a quick check and tell him his Panchayat has some money, about 3 Lakhs. He thanks me and asks mockingly: Aur kab aaoge? Agle saal? (So, when are you coming? Next year?). I laugh and promise to come soon.
There are many sides to all of us. Sanjay is no different, often revealing seemingly contradictory qualities that, in him, bafflingly, coexist with ease. He is sharp and blunt; disorganized, yet a brilliant mobilizer of men; loves the spotlight, yet takes everyone along. What binds all these diverse strands together, as Ashish (a friend, a teacher in an Engineering college and a labour-rights activist) said in an interview with a journalist, is a remarkable ability to tell right from wrong.
This was best exemplified in one of my early interactions with Sanjay. We were at one of the ‘Core-Committee’ meetings of his still-fledging organization, Bihar MNREGA Watch (BMW for short). The topic being debated was whether to solelywork on MNREGA-related problems or simultaneously campaign for other essentials: ration, pension and homes.
In the end, Sanjay simply said: we will focus on the MNREGA, but not completely ignore other things. He then added, by way of explanation: I find it hard to refuse an old widow who comes asking for help. Something in his manner indicated that he wasn’t being naive or impractical– he couldn’t refuse and he would find a way to do it all. After all, he’d worked the hardest and the longest in the village; he would be the last person to not make an informed judgement on the scope of the organization.
The NREGA website (www.nrega.nic.in) is a gigantic warehouse of (somewhat imprecise) information. Everything that happens under the NREGA in every corner of the country is recorded. We have a 750-million strong rural population, roughly a fifth of which has worked on the NREGA. Every one of these workers has a separate profile on the website. So, for instance, one can track, with a few clicks of the mouse, the entire work-history (including the three main questions: what work, how many days, how much earned) of a labourer in Ghotala Panchayat, Basavakalyan Block, Bidar District, Karnataka.
Sanjay, then an electrician on the pavements of Janakpuri, Delhi, did precisely that. Except the combination he looked for was: Ratnauli Panchayat, Kurhani Block, Muzaffarpur District, Bihar. His own. He wasn’t really computer literate when he chanced upon the website; by urban standards, he is barely even literate, having only studied up to class 7. Driven by a terrible curiosity (a trait that shines every time we see something in English: he demands to know how it is to be read and what it means) about the internet, he asked a cyber-cafe owner to allow him to operate the computer. He then taught himself to navigate his way through to Google. On a whim, he searched for the first word that came to his head: ‘NaREGA’.
What he found was astonishing: ghost-works, ghost-workers and ghost-days. People who lived down the road from his house in the village seemed to have worked for days and days, building invisible roads, bunds and canals! In a state of fevered frenzy, he decided to have all the records printed (about 800 pages, costing him a small fortune) and carried them back to his village. He made enquires, ascertained the scale of money being siphoned off in the names of innocent men and women and returned to his job in Delhi.
The next few months were spent trying to tell people the story of his village. This is a tale that must be heard from Sanjay, for few can make frustration seem so real and exciting; every roadblock was a challenge, every lead doggedly followed. In the end, he got through to Nikhil Dey of NCPRI who put him onto the maverick and fiercely passionate Santosh Mathew, then Principal Secretary, Rural Development, Bihar. Mr Mathew got an audit conducted, not without significant drama. Sanjay spoke about being trailed by the Mukhia’s men; a false court case was slapped against him. He fought on, gheraoing a block-level official with a bunch of mazdoors in tow and videotaping the whole incident.
He was possessed, he says, by a force whose source he struggles to define. Something was seriously wrong and he wanted to set it right.
To describe it, he used a curious Urdu word that, up until then only conjured up the image of a defunct Pakistani band in my head: he called it his junoon.
By the time I visited Ratnauli, over a year had passed since he first typed ‘NaREGA’ on Google. I did not know what to expect. What I do know was that I did not expect what I saw. The road to Ratnauli is breathtaking: green paddy fields on either side, a lone tea-stall with thick white smoke emerging from its confines, trees– tall and handsome– kissing the skies, silver ponds where buffaloes and kids bathe and houses, simple and sparse, clinging to the bottoms of the trees like scared children.
But, all of this paled when we landed at the venue for Sanjay’s sabha: it was an old palatial mansion of sorts, surrounded by more green-yellow fields. And it was brimming with mazdoors, mostly women. Everywhere you looked, there were people: women in front, women huddling by pillars, men behind me, women and men on ledges on my right and left. Incredibly, more seemed to be coming– in hordes.
And when we chose to begin (with people still trickling in), we had their complete attention (Ani, a friend who worked with the Government then, and her captivating rhetoric played no small role in this): people seemed to want to know, to listen; people cared. We weren’t preaching to ignorant labourers, we were discussing the NREGA with informed participants; labourers sang songs of toil they had composed, we sang songs on rights and injustice we had learnt. Sanjay seemed to have a magnetic influence over them: he chided them for being stupid, swelled with pride when they sang. He was their teacher and guide, hero and, as we discovered much to our shock from one of their songs, God, having been put on the same pedestal as Ram and Sita!
In the past year, the village had transformed considerably: over 700 mazdoors had worked on 8 separate works. Most were first-timers. Payments were still due on some of them, but it was a phenomenal effort. The State had awoken and all it took was one computer, one semi-literate man and several-hundred mazdoors. I have seen Sanjay’s Sanghatan grow and evolve, from working in two Panchayats to seven, from being a chaotic one-man show to a Union with some semblance of a structure. Sanjay is famous in these parts now, the chowk where he holds his sabhas has people thronging from everywhere to catch a glimpse of him; fittingly, it has been rechristened NaREGA chowk.
I received another call from Sanjay this afternoon. It was grim news: four of his sathis who had gone to a nearby Panchayat to organize a meeting were beaten up. On Sanjay’s behest, the workers there had filed in applications for work from the 15th of October. Of course, no work was provided. The meeting was arranged to discuss the way forward. Block-level officials were invited to attend. Instead, the Mukhia turned up and, to quote Sanjay: ‘Unko Apne Haathon se maara’ (‘Beat them up with his own hands’).
Sanjay says I know all of those who were injured. At least two of the names he mentioned conjure up images: one is an old Muslim man, long-bearded and frail. The last time I was leaving from Sanjay’s village, I was in Ashish’s car, saying my goodbyes. As we were leaving and I turned to look ahead, I heard someone tap my window. I rolled it down and saw the old man’s lined face; he thrust his hand out, shook mine, smiled and said goodbye. I was touched.
Sanjay’s fights have barely begun and goodness is already being whipped. But, as participants of struggles all over—from Araria and Karihar to Muzaffarpur and Kaimur—know, it is important to continue to fight together; the power of many is enormous and often underrated.
And sometimes all it takes to begin is a single spark: in this case, one man’s electric junoon.