Mr Ashish Ranjan has devoted his life to the noble cause of improving the lives of thousands of people after he completed his master’s in science from the U.S. He runs a trade union Called Jan Jagrit Shakti Sangthan. It operates in few districts of North Bihar.
Jan Jagrit Shakti Sangathan is a Trade Union of unorganised sector workers. It has a membership of 15,000. Members are from landless agricultural poor, marginalised communities and Dalits. He started to work for this noble cause in 2008.
Q: Explain in brief where you started? How did you start?
Ashish Ranjan (AR): We started in 2008. The poor had obstacles in getting work. MGNREGA program functioning had flaws. At that time, MGNREGA was new and held a lot of promise. Bihar being one of the most backward districts in India, we felt because of the huge migration crisis also, Bihar supplies labour to other states.
We thought this could be the program that lessens the burden on labourers in a dignified way. We started surveying and found that awareness around the program was very low, but when people came to know about it, they were interested.
Under this program, people have the right to demand work and get work in their area. Agricultural work is limited. People were excited to work with the government under MGNREGA.
It is not easy to get work due to vested interests, corruption, lack of motivation on the part of the government to deliver, as it happens with most programs. The good part of the program is that it is demand-driven. It entitles people to get work.
Q: How are you connected with workers? How did you start mobilising labourers? Till now, have you gathered any like-minded people who help you carry out your activities?
AR: We thought only good mobilisation around this issue and awareness could improve the situation, so we started mobilising and that’s how our work started. After a couple of years, we started sitting at block headquarters, district headquarters, Dharnas, protesting our rights.
After 2–3 years of continuous work and with some success in getting work from the states, we formed this union called Jan Jagrit Shakti Sanghatan.
Initially, it was a campaign that materialised into a union later. Now our focus is not just MGNREGA. When a group of people join us from any village, they become part of our union. We work for everything that they are denied.
Be it police atrocities, caste atrocities, land issues for the landless labourers, the struggle for home state land, atrocities on women, child marriage, our ambit has expanded now. Every challenge coming in the way of a poor household becomes our issue.
Q: What do you think the success and failure in MGNREGA implementation are?
AR: During a pandemic, the government put in extra money. MGNREGA budget increased from ₹60,000 crores to ₹1.05 lakh crores. Why was it done? Because such schemes reach the poor effectively. The parliament criticised MGNREGA once.
Our PM once said that he would like to keep MGNREGA as a monument of the previous government’s failure. He then allocated a huge amount to it during the pandemic. That itself speaks about the effectiveness of the schemes. It was a U-turn.
MGNREGAs performance is not satisfactory because people, on average, get work for 45 days against 100 days which is stated in the law. Some of the problems are structural in nature. At the micro-level, if 50 labourers are interested in getting work, it is impossible for the Panchayat to give them all 100 days of work. Just promising to provide work is easy but making work accessible is not.
Structural problems in the implementation make it inefficient. The budget is also inefficient. Statutory minimum wages are ₹290 in Bihar and for MNREGA, it is ₹198. This gap is a failure.
Flood prone areas, dry states, unavailability of public land limits the ability. No timely payments to workers is another issue. For months, they wait to get paid.
Q: How do you spread awareness and encourage labourers to raise their voices?
AR: We politicise our people to make progress. Where do we want to go as a society and as a country? Why are we collectivising? Why are we forming a union? What should the government’s policies be? What should the taxation policy be? What should the labour policy be? What should the wages be?
Our constitution says we are a socialist country but are we? What are the economics of society? We take unions in a constructive way to present a society that we want.
Q: How is the response from authorities?
AR: It is mix response. For issues of corruption, we face huge resistance. If we have small grievances, bureaucracy responds. We are a 12-year old organisation and people know we are not very easy to tackle. They do respond. Most of the time, we are not satisfied. There is so much resistance to deliver things that are laid in the act itself. The system is not geared to deliver.
There is lots of resistance due to caste as well. If it is a financial commitment, then it is a daunting task to bargain with authorities. Because at the budgeting level, they think that they have got the mandate from the people. They don’t care about activists or civil society organisations.
The tendency is to ignore voices from the ground. Vested interests in the locality, in society, is also another problem we face. It is not just from bureaucrats that we get resistance; it’s from all sides. Everybody in the chain resists demand from the people.
Bureaucrats are threatened. They are entitled to govern in their own way, which denies entitlements to the poor. Officials have filed against us multiple times.
Q: What is your latest activity where you are involved? What are your further plans? If you could leave a message, what it would be?
AR: We are also involved in farmers struggle to a great extent. Most of our workers are involved in tenant farming as well. The poor do not have papers. We have to prove that we are citizens of the country due to CAA and NRC. The poor are vulnerable. Bribing people, standing in queues for hours, going to courts is detrimental for them.
We are involved in this cause for the last 2 years. We emphasise local activities. It strengthens our union. We collaborate with sister organisations. Going forward, we are pushing for certain laws, for example, Urban Employment. We need to walk and talk as a society collectively.