Our class 10 Hindi textbook had a chapter authored by the eminent Hindi writer and playwright, Bhishm Sahni. In the essay, he wrote about his journey to Tilonia in the Bikaner district, a model village which Bunker Roy helped in developing. Sahni saw water conservation initiatives in the drought prone village, young girls getting computer education and old women working as engineers to repair solar devices. Surprised by such levels of awareness and development at the centre of India’s hinterlands, he called his visit, a ‘pilgrimage’. Tilonia is still hailed as the most successful experiment of rural development and self-reliance in India.
Last weekend, a friend and I visited Devdungri village in Rajasthan. It lies in the Rajsamand District and is the karmabhoomi of the political and social activist Aruna Roy, who along with Nikhil De and Shankar Singh helped establish this wonderful organization called Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The organisation was at the forefront of the Right To Information (RTI) campaign and also played a key role in advocating the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Both of these legislations have radically redefined the relationship between the state and its citizens by empowering the latter. They have ushered a new era in democratic India. My experiences in this remote village were extremely enlightening and calling my visit a ‘pilgrimage’, on the lines of Sahni, wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
To reach Devdungri, we boarded a train from Delhi to Beawar. This is a small sleepy town in Rajasthan and the village is around 60 km by road from here. The landscape after Beawar is hilly, lush green and beautiful, especially in the monsoon months. It appears very different from the sandy and desert-like image one has of Rajasthan. Devdungri sits right next to the Aravali range with scenic hills in its background.
We were welcomed by our friends who were interning at MKSS. They were having the morning breakfast which was also served to us. People there eat only two heavy meals in a day – breakfast and dinner. There is a small kitchen-cum-dining room where food is cooked on a traditional chulah. It is a rather difficult process to light the chulah. One has to continuously blow air into the fire to keep it burning. Everyone eats the food together, without any discrimination on the basis of caste, class or gender. After the meals, one washes their own utensils. All this generates a strong feeling of community and self-dependence.
Aruna Roy was not there when we went. Her room is next to the kitchen. Both the rooms are kuchha structures with walls made of mud and cow-dung. But the ideas of dignity, empowerment and accountability discussed within those walls makes them taller than any ivory tower.
Mr Shankar Singh, fondly called ‘Shankar Mama’ by people, was there. He talked to us about how the organisation started and how it grew into this massive movement. Around 30 years ago, he, along with Aruna Roy and Nikhil De, helped liberate a community grazing land from a local zamindar who had occupied it illegally in a nearby village. They organised the people and led the resistance. The zamindar had the power of the administration behind him. They were threatened many times, but they were persistent. Finally, the zamindar and the administration budged and the common folk were allowed to use that land for cattle grazing. This was the first victory for MKSS.
Since then the organization has been leading movements for farmers, dalits, landless labourers and women by organising them and giving them logistical support. That morning, the volunteers were meeting a young woman who was a victim of domestic abuse. They were helping her with the legalities of the case. She was probably 19-20 years old, had a young two-year-old son, and a huge wound below her right knee. Domestic violence and gender discrimination are very prevalent in the area. We heard many stories of abuse in the two days we stayed. There were many inspiring stories of resistance too.
Every day, the volunteers and interns of the organisation are given certain tasks. That day’s task was to check the working of the fair price (ration) shops in a town nearby. We were asked to accompany the volunteers in the visit. The population here is categorised into ‘Above Poverty Line’ (APL), ‘Below Poverty Line’ (BPL) and ‘Antyodaya’ (Extremely Backward). Above all of this are those who fall under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and the State BPL (SBPL).
There are a plethora of categories in Rajasthan. I have studied some basic aspects of policy. But it was still difficult for me to understand these categories and what the beneficiaries of each category are entitled to. I wondered how complicated all of this might be for someone who does not know how to read and write.
The two fair price shops we went to had only wheat and kerosene. They did not provide coarse grains and rice, as mandated by the NFSA, and nobody seemed to have the answer for the same. The shop owners also complained of the erratic supply of the materials. They said that they also suffered losses because of rodents eating grains. I spotted a mouse within the first five minutes at a shop. We wondered about the kind of food these families have to eat and the health hazards they are exposed to.
Rajasthan has integrated the Ration Card with the Aadhar Card. Hence, to get the wheat or kerosene, one has to present both these forms of identity and put their thumb impression. Usually, the ration cards are in the name of the oldest women of the household. The records of consumption for every ration card can be easily accessed online. I thought of it as a wonderful initiative. The cardholder can go online and verify if the right amount of ration is extracted in their name. But then I wondered, for a village like this, where the per capita expenditure of ₹32 per day (₹11,500 per year) is considered the poverty line (Rangarajan Committee Report), and 30% of the junta are below it, who would have a smartphone or computer with a working internet connection to verify this data? It could only prove handy to a group of activists or researchers.
Integration of biometric data with public distribution system (PDS) also appeared as a welcome reform. However, this had its own severe implementation drawbacks. We met a 70-year-old woman, Nenu Devi, whose thumb imprints had almost faded. The machine was unable to recognize them and hence she was unable to procure grains for the past five months.
In “Gandhi’s Talisman”, often printed in our school books, the Mahatma asks the reader to “recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen.” I now had a face in Nenu Devi to recall. Her sunken eyes, tears drying up on her eyelashes, frail figure, deep collar bones would haunt me for a long time. I never thought of poverty and hunger to be so ruthless on life. The volunteers recorded her video to be given to the district authorities to request for special provisions in such cases.
We also met a man called Narayan. He lived in a tiny house, whose walls were made of small rocks and whose area was less than a luxury car. He had a wife who had a mental disability, was physically handicapped and a mother of three. His only property was a tin box.
Narayan was a rag picker and made his scant living by segregating and selling rejected waste. He was unable to procure grains for reasons unknown. We took him to the shop and helped him buy the grains. Ironically, Narayan is a name of Lord Vishnu, the consort of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.
The government had prepared a list of people who had not bought grains from the fair price shops in the recent months. They were to remove these names from the list as these were believed to be ‘ghost’ beneficiaries. The names of Narayan and Nenu Devi were on that list. MKSS ensured that the list was made public and then reached out to each and every person on the list. While there were some genuine cases, most people were not able to buy grains because of some inability. If they had not been informed personally, their ration cards would become invalid and they might have lost their entitlements to subsidised grains.
It is not that the state is not doing anything. Welfare policies are very much in place. But there is a massive failure in implementation. We heard of an old childless couple. The wife is handicapped and is entitled to a monthly disability pension of ₹700. The funds are released once in three months. They have to go to a nearby town to collect ₹2,100. Because of her disability, a special vehicle is arranged. The office is at the first floor of the building (yes, for collecting disability pension) and many people are required to lift the poor woman. The couple ends up spending ₹700 to claim ₹2,100. They spend three months on just ₹1,400.
It was getting dark and we returned to Devdungri. Preparations had begun for the evening meal. Everyone contributed – from cutting vegetables to preparing the dough to lighting the chulah. We discussed the events of the day and how life and concerns here are totally different from those in the city. People here are unsure if they would be getting meals in the evening. They are scared of their mattresses getting drenched in rain because the shelter is unreliable. The concerns for roti, kapda and makaan (food, clothing and shelter) dominate their minds. How different and elite are our concerns in the city when compared to theirs in the village, I thought. The disconnect between Bharat and India is nearly complete, it seems.
It was raining heavily the next morning, making it impossible to go out for any outdoor activity. The staff decided to screen some documentaries on MKSS for us and the new interns. We saw how the organisation resisted corruption by conducting jan-sunwais (public hearings). This was mostly prevalent in construction activities mandated by the state. Sometimes, on paper the construction was complete but there was nothing built on the ground. In other cases, poor quality material was used. There were severe discrepancies in muster rolls (labour records). Fake names were entered or labourers were not given full wages. This was not prevalent in a particular area but all throughout the state and the country.
MKSS volunteers ensured that all the records are brought out in public domain and verified the same in large public gatherings in front of the district administration. The ones who were exploited were organised and asked to speak. They felt emboldened because of the power of numbers and the genuine nature of their cause. The ones at fault were publicly named in these public hearings and legal proceedings were initiated. These were great gatherings of people demanding transparency and accountability from the government.
Thousands of such public hearings were organised across Rajasthan and in other states as well. They helped in the empowerment of the people. In some cases, the guilty accepted their fault and agreed to pay a fine. The masses’ belief in justice and unity were also strengthened through these efforts.
In the evening, we sat together while the volunteers chanted slogans and sang songs they used in public gatherings and protests. They were beautiful renditions of empowerment, humanism, gender equality, accountability and transparency. Some of them were, “गर्व से कहो, इंसान हैं हम!” (Say it with pride, we are all humans!), “हमारा पैसा, हमारा हिसाब” (Our money, Our accounts), “महिलाओं की सहभागिता के बिना, हर बदलाव अधूरा है” (Without the involvement of women, every change is incomplete), “आवाज़ दो, हम एक हैं!” (Say it loudly, we are all one).
We ended with a beautiful poem by Dushyant Kumar which had the lines “सिर्फ हंगामा खड़ा करना मेरा मकसद नहीं / पूरी कोशिश है की यह सूरत बदलनी चाहिए…” (My motive is not only to create a furore/ The whole attempt is to change the reality).
We left for Delhi the same night. But the visit left a deep impression on us. It was eye-opening to see the realities that the most excluded and underprivileged of the society suffer. I can’t even imagine myself being in that position. The things for which I worry seem so futile now. I am living in luxuries which crores of people are deprived of. I know for a fact that a storm won’t blow away my house, or a drought year won’t force me to move to a new place in search of work. I know that I would definitely get to eat tonight. Millions don’t have that sense of certainty. And it is despicable for India in the 21st Century.
You might swoon over the high-rises of Bangalore or Gurgaon. But there are millions living with an uncertain future. The gap between the rich and the poor is increasing every day. The top 57 billionaires in India have the same wealth as the bottom 70% population. The news media, both print and electronic, are focusing on trivial issues, completely ignoring massive implementation failures and humongous rural distress. For example, the farmers from Tamil Nadu protesting in Jantar Mantar for months. They have hardly been given any news coverage.
In this background, there are these service-spirited organisations and individuals, living away from the urban limelight and comforts, passionately working to ensure that the poor get their due in this unfair society. MKSS and other organisations like it, deserve our appreciation, support and recognition, for they are silently writing a glorious chapter of service in the story of India.
If you have read up till here, I request you to once visit the organisation in Devdungri Village, Rajasthan, to see for yourself the wonderful work that they do. Trust me, you will not be disappointed.
This post was first published on Pratyush Rawal’s blog