Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan (SPSS) began with the electric passion of one man — Sanjay Sahni, a class 7 drop-out and then an electrician in the streets of Janakpuri in South-West Delhi — to expose corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS, also MNREGS) in his Panchayat. Now, the passion has spread, from a man to a village, from village to Panchayat, Panchayat to block and finally all over Muzaffarpur district and spilling onto a neighbouring one, encompassing 10000 labourers. SPSS is no longer one man’s crusade against corruption, it is a people’s movement that fights for increasing awareness among citizens regarding their rights.
Sanjay Sahni’s chance discovery of the internet in August 2011 went hand-in-hand with a series of other startling encounters. Within a few days of accessing the world wide web for the first time, Sanjay had realized something equally momentous — lakhs of rupees were stolen by his elected representatives and their nexus of crooked bureaucrats in the name of his fellow-villagers. The NREGS promised 100 days of work for any household that approached a representative of the state for work. In Ratnauli, Sanjay’s village, labourers had barely heard of the scheme; even fewer had ever asked for work. And yet, incredibly, as per official online records, many had worked for days together. What’s more, they had been paid and the money had been withdrawn from their accounts.
A quick visit to Ranauli from Delhi confirmed Sanjay’s worst fears. Most of the records were fraudulent.
Sanjay soon began calling people off the NREGS website (www.nrega.nic.in). With some luck and many months later, he found himself telling his story to Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for the People’s of Right to Information (NCPRI). Nikhil Dey put him on to Mr Santosh Mathew, then Principal Secretary, Rural Development Department, Bihar government. Santosh Mathew instituted an audit in Ratnauli within a week of receiving the complaint. The audit team from Patna visited Muzaffarpur — about four months after Sanjay first accessed the NREGS website — and asked several uncomfortable questions. For the first time in their lifetimes, many persons in Ratnauli had actually seen government officials from Patna. In their eyes, Sanjay had transformed,from a nondescript occasional visitor to local hero.
Sanjay didn’t rest on his laurels and went about putting together a team of individuals that would help raise awareness. And soon, the Bihar MNREGA Watch (BMW) was born — first, as a people’s organization used to monitor the implementation of the NREGS in Ratnauli and it’s neighbouring Panchayat, Mahant Maniyari. If the NREGS had to provide work to labourers — as the scheme had been envisaged — and not concentrate excess wealth in the hands of the Mukhiya and his cronies, then people needed to know what was going on in their names and what they were entitled to. The BMW held several “awareness” sabhas in Ratnauli and neighbouring Mahant Maniyari. The Sabhas attracted visitors from other Panchayats too and the common meeting-ground for participants was soon rechristened “NREGA chowk”. At their core, these sabhas were awareness meetings. However, several things seem to happen simultaneously: strategies were planned, new avenues for work and expansion identified. Workers were trained to demand work from the state — a right under the NREGS — both orally and through applications. Soon, as opposed to the past, real workers worked on the scheme and on doing so, demanded payments within 15 days, as was stipulated in the Act. Most workers were (and continue to be) women. They worked hard, ensured the work was measured by a qualified engineer, applied pressure on the Panchayat Rozgar Sekvak (PRS) to make note of their attendance, even appointed mazdoor-mates of their own.
Thus, roads were built, ponds were dug, earth leveled.
Soon, an enlightened work-force wasn’t merely satisfied with work-provision and payments for the same. They began demanding that their ration be delivered on time: in Mahant Maniyari, a group of women gheraoed the local Fair Price Shop dealer and insisted he give them three-months’ worth pending grains to everyone in their village; the old, the infirm and the widows wanted their pensions in their accounts in a monthly manner, not on an arbitrary basis. Work was also pursued on the RTI front, using the empowering law to demand rights. BMW was eventually subsumed by SPSS — a union that was more than a mere monitoring agency, one that promised to look beyond the NREGS, one that promised to bring about change in the society.
SPSS grew across Panchayats and blocks, eventually encompassing around 10000 labourers across 2 districts. Everywhere, the stories were similar: first, the Mukhiya-PRS-Postoffice (elected representative-bureaucracy-payment agency) nexus was broken down, corruption exposed using information uploaded on the NREGS website; then, labourers demanded and obtained work, agitated for timely and correct payments. Sabhas were held, dharnas organized at the collector’s office, at the Mukhiyas’ homes. Rights were demanded, responses were videotaped, audits organized, RTIs filed. The local media was often sympathetic, extensively covering some of the bigger agitations — for instance, the one for timely payments organized at Muzaffarpur in August 2013 was covered by both local newspapers and TV-News channels.
All this was not without facing backlash from the elected representatives. A few SPSS members were threatened, some injured in scuffles. More shockingly, Ram Kumar Thakur, a lawyer who was also a resident of Ratnauli and a supporter of SPSS, was shot dead in the open by the Mukhiya’s men. Despite SPSS meeting the Chief Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, and the Rural Development Minister at the centre, Mr Jairam Ramesh, and briefing them on the matter, the Mukhiya continues to reside in the Panchayat. On the other hand, Mr Thakur’s close family lives in constant fear, fending off threats by the Mukhiya’s cronies.
SPSS continues to inspire not merely in Muzaffarpur, but across the country. SPSS volunteers are a frequent presence in many movements for change everywhere — over 200 labourers came out in a protest in Delhi for the passing of the Whistleblower’s Bill in February 2014. Their mobile radio campaign, where labourers get short 2 minute messages about the latest developments in their locality on their cell-phones, has been touted as a great example for using technology to further rural causes. SPSS has held social audits of government schemes on their own and have presented findings before the district collector.
Having come a long way, SPSS still has much more to do. It does however offer a unique kind of hope — that rural mass movements can develop organically, with only cursory support from the elite and no support at all from the rich; that one man’s thirst for justice can find resonance among thousands; that thousands together can get their denied rights even in the harshest of environs; that the traditional sources of power — the corrupt officaldom — can be broken down and forced to change, using a unique marriage of traditional non-violent methods (dharnas, petitions, campaigns and marches) and modern techonology (the internet, mobile radio and cell-phones).
SPSS is a struggle for change that stands for a remarkable, if simple dictum: we will know, we will live.