By Rajat Kumar:
Tikam belongs to the Bheel community – a marginalised tribal community of Rajasthan. His father died when he was young, making him the oldest, and sole breadwinner in his family. He completed a diploma in hotel management and was working as a chef in a five-star hotel in Kumbhalgarh. He had to work in front of the tandoor (an oven for cooking chicken and rotis) for long hours, which exposed him to smoke for long durations and caused burning sensations in his chest.
Tikam is currently one of the young yatris (traveller) in the ongoing ‘Jawabdehi Yatra’ in Rajasthan and an active member of the natak (drama) group. Like Tikam, there are many yatris, with their own struggles and stories, who are part of the Jawabdehi Yatra that is creating awareness and demanding the implementation of the ‘Jawabdehi Kanoon’ (Accountability Law) in the state.
The participants on the yatra may seem to be from ordinary backgrounds but they have come together for an extraordinary effort to bring about real and sustained change. The Jawabdehi Yatra is a caravan of about 70 people traveling through 33 districts, including 100 blocks of Rajasthan to gain support for the Accountability Law. As Shankar Singh of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) explains, the law focuses on two main aspects: first, ensuring efficiency in bureaucratic offices, particularly after the recommendations of the 7th pay commission for salary hikes; and second, demanding penalisation for those public officials who are corrupt and delay service delivery. Till now, the Yatra has covered 21 districts including remote rural areas.
In each of the district headquarters, a Jawabdehi Mela is held. Everywhere, people actively participate in the Yatra connected by the fact that they have all have faced similar problems when dealing with public officials. The yatris are involved in raising awareness through nataks, songs, grievance camps, and rallies. One of the popular songs in the Yatra is “Jawabdehi Yatra jawab puche re…bolo kyun ni re”, which is a Rajasthani song that questions the irresponsible behavior of the bureaucracy and public officials. The nataks are based on local parables which reflect the problems faced by the people when claiming their entitlements. The yatra enjoys huge support in the areas it visits.
Grievance camps are conducted to record and lodge the grievances of people where public officials have failed to respond or perform duties. The grievance form is detailed and provides receipts to the complainant. Till now, the Yatra has filed about 7,000 grievances varying from delay in pension and ration, issues of forest land, delay in payments of NREGA, unavailability of electricity and water connection, delay in payments for construction of toilets under the ‘Swach Bharat Abhiyan’ to problems of service delivery in government schools and hospitals, and many more. The district campaign ends with a meeting between the district collector and the yatris and detailed discussions with district level officials about the implementation and delivery issues as reflected in the complaints.
The Yatra travels across Rajasthan in the unique Jawabdehi Bus. The Jawabdehi Bus is colorfully decorated with slogans and puppets that make it lively and especially grabs the attention of children. The bus is as interesting from inside as it looks from outside, and houses about 50 people, from talented artists, drummers, singers, puppeteers to activists, students, and academicians. One of the unique artists in the Jawabdehi bus is Gokuldas, who plays mandal (a clay form of a dholak). Gokuldas belongs to Mota Guda (a small village in Dewair Panchayat). The thumps of a mandal are different from the dholak and it attracts people from far off places. Other musical instruments like thali, manjira, dholak and dhol are also used.
Along with the bus there are the ‘RTI on Wheels’ and ‘Soochna Seva’ vehicles to write people’s grievances and follow up. “These people are looking for answers in a bus,” was what a man whispered to his friend in Kumbhalgarh. This is the question that occurs to everyone. How can a make a bus government accountable?
At all places covered by the Yatra so far, people have been blatantly excluded from access to their basic entitlements. Public officials claim that the reason for exclusion is because the masses are unaware of their entitlements. In my experience, people are aware and come to the grievance camps with all their entitlement cards. It is a matter of public officials being sensitive to the inequalities and barriers that people face.
The Yatra uses people’s grievances as evidence to evaluate policy and implementation. It also puts the existing grievance redressal mechanisms to test and creates a better understanding of the need for a strong and robust accountability mechanism. The yatra proposes an accountability law which would contain penalties on officials for non-compliance, compensation for delays in providing entitlements, and quick, independent investigation and appropriate action on corruption. While none of this seems like a threat, perhaps when it is all put together it poses a challenge to the ruling establishment and its vested interests.
This is probably what made the MLA of Manohar thana along with his goons attack the jawabdehi yatris like Tikam in Aklera? On the 16th of January, the Jawabdehi Yatra was allegedly attacked by a mob led by the MLA of Manohar thana in Jhalawar district. The pre-planned, unprovoked attack by almost 30 lathi-wielding goons who mercilessly beat the yatris, including women and students, created shock and anger. While demands for the MLA’s arrest continue, it is important for us to understand what this yatra has been about and what it represents along with its components and agenda.