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Celebrating a revolution at the grassroots

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Interaction: Aruna Roy with MKSS members.
Interaction: Aruna Roy with MKSS members.

For two decades the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) has taken the Right to Information Act to the grassroots. KAVERI GILL was witness to a mela that celebrated its 20th anniversary at Bhim, Rajasthan.

The occasion was no political party rally, nor was there any promise of handouts by the state, dangling a carrot or wielding a stick to elicit attendance

On Labour Day, a maidan in Bhim, District Rajsamand, Rajasthan was the hive of much activity. A shamiana, surrounded by stalls, slowly filled up with a crowd of ten thousand people – women, men and children from near and far who had, of their own volition, made their way to this mela. The occasion was no political party rally, nor was there any promise of handouts by the state, dangling a carrot or wielding a stick to elicit attendance. Instead, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) was celebrating its twenty year anniversary, with its founding members (Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Shankar Singh), fellow members and supporters ( inter alia, Lal Singh, Chunni Singh, Naurati bai, Shushila bai, Kavita Srivastava, Nilabh Misra, Harsh Mander) and many well-wishers, all coming together to remember the organic birth of this peoples' grass-root movement in 1990.

It was an emotional day, and rightly so. But for a development specialist, the insights emerging from bearing witness to the proceedings and a regaling of the achievements of this movement in a span of no more than two decades is where the interest lay spellbound. Key trends and phrases in development, such as participation, communitisation, decentralisation, social audits and rights-based approaches have, at a certain level of abstraction, entered the lexicon of mainstream language and understanding, and accordingly policy in India, in recent years. To see what they mean in practice, and how they operate on the ground, is another matter altogether. There is the right to information (RTI) and what it signifies, not just intrinsically but instrumentally, in wringing better implementation and accountability of every social sector scheme in this country. There is also the rozgar guarantee and the village-based mazdoor unions, which are the newest creations formed by MKSS around MGNREGS.

On beginnings

Mancur Olson lists many preconditions for successful organised collective action, dependent on context-specific characteristics of the community and situation, some historically given and others malleable. So it was interesting to hear Aruna explain that the genesis of this movement was facilitated by the characteristics of the Rawat community within which it incubated, with its tradition of egalitarianism and fearless opposition of hierarchy. This has implications for how easily it might be replicated elsewhere in the country, perhaps requiring variable levels of extraneous facilitation in the initial stages. On participation, it was striking to see not just the diverse identities represented at the mela – by gender, by caste and so on – but how interactive the proceedings were naturally. For every nara lagaod (accompanied by Shankar's rhythmic puppeteering) and question thrown out to the audience, there was a ready rendition of slogans, for example, ‘ hamara paisa, hamara hasaab', a raising of the fist in a gesture of solidarity to the refrain of ‘ zindabad', and a quick murmured discussion in response to the query. No silent, reserved and a priori cynical audience to be had here!

And why would it be, for this was an audience for whom MKSS provided a platform for a collective voice, for their sole request in Rajasthan of ‘ mainoo mazdoori chaideh'. Along with other groups, it delivered at the national level the landmark right to information, the right to employment guarantee, and is presently moving towards delivering the right to food. But for every victory gained in various spheres, unlike the fallow period and rest that naturally follows the attainment of a goal, this movement has only seen its work increase. And that is because not only is it fighting for justifiable rights, it is also building sound underlying supporting institutions, the painstaking ‘ boond boond se ghada bharta hain', to mould with deep integrity at the micro level an answerable and accountable state, a ‘junta ka naukar'.

Setting rules

Accordingly, intermittent announcements at the mela on forthcoming jan sunwais to tackle corruption; on the how to's and who to's of registering arzis of complaint; and reminders to ensure Panchayati Raj does not translate into Sarpanch Raj. Moreover, MKSS holds itself up to the same mirror of standard as it does the state. Still to take a call on whether the newly formed rozgar guarantee unions should cover only MGNREGS workers or all rural unorganised sector workers, and while each came up to the stage with their banner for a round of applause, it has been made clear that if any financial or other irregularity happens within these unions, it will not be tolerated by the rest.

Understandably, for a movement which acknowledges it took eleven years to get the Indian Parliament to pass the RTI bill, there is no room for complacency. MKSS argues that if the people do not use it as an accountability tool after this length of struggle, they would be the proverbial fools. Progressively so,under the UPA government's extensive flagship development schemes, as available money becomes less of an issue in ineffective delivery over the fault lines of a lack of proper implementation and governance, it is this kind of ground swell movement that will inform and empower the people to in turn force the state and its frontline providers to perform to standard – in employment, in education, in health, in food provision and so on.

The Nobel Laureates Douglas North and Ronald Coase, as well as Oliver Williamson, have written extensively on path dependency and institution building for development. To see the germination and successful application of their abstract ideas in a hot but energising mela in rural Rajasthan, so far from the cold cynicism and fatigue of Delhi, was exhilarating. For this positive revolution is slowly but surely sweeping the countryside, and it is what is going to ultimately ensure the people get inclusive growth and development. The right to know; the right to live – happy birthday, MKSS, it's been a laudable innings so far!

Dr. Kaveri Gill is an independent academic and development consultant based in Delhi.


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