Janadhikar Campaign Culminates in

First National Public Hearing on NREGA

AIALA (All India Agricultural Labour Association) gave a call to hold a public hearing on NREGA on 17th. August while the monsoon session of the Lok Sabha was in full swing. AIALA is working in over 20 states of India and presently has a membership of over 2 million members. Although this is the leanest period of the year and there are all sorts of travel difficulties due to the rains, over 10,000 poor agri-labour from 18 states and 110 districts, responded to the call. Jantar Mantar (the venue in Delhi) witnessed thousands of labouring men and women from some of the poorest, remotest and backward districts of India, marching into Delhi, head held high, shouting their demands, carrying placards and banners and with determination to get justice. These activists braved attacks by police who beat and threatened them, tried to forcibly remove them from the trains they were travelling in and somehow stop them from reaching Delhi . Undeterred, they came in large numbers to fill the whole area with their warm and enthusiastic presence and full-throated slogans.

The public hearing (Jan Sunvai) became an urgent necessity as it became obvious that the NREGA had failed to arrest starvation deaths and even scratch the surface of the twin evils of poverty and unemployment in the countryside. Not only is the Act flawed, vague and partial, its implementation (or the non-implementation in many cases) is ridden with wholesale violations and irregularities. Yet in his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shamelessly crowed from the ramparts of the Lal Qila regarding the miracle effects of great achievements on the front of rural employment guarantee.

The record therefore needed to be put straight. This was done by the thousands of men and women at the public hearing who exposed the realities at ground level. Speaker after speaker uncovered the true state of affairs – no job-cards, no work, corruption and bribery everywhere, poor women and children dying from hunger, terrible rural distress, meagre payments, delayed payments, impossibly high tasks, indifference and insensitivity of the governments and the callous discriminations of major political parties in their games of one-upmanship. People recounted the heart-rending tales of women like Sarupiya Devi and her daughter-in-law Sagunia Devi of Darbhanga district (Bihar), who did hard manual labour for 40 days, and yet Sarupiya, and her grandchild born of Sagunia, died of hunger and lack of medicines, waiting in vain for the wages that came too little too late. People from Rohtas district in Bihar recounted how four people who had been issued job cards, died of hunger since they were denied jobs. Representatives from Karbi Anglong district ( Assam ) told of how over 1.5 lakh applicants from remote tribal areas of Assam have not been issued job cards for 3 months, since they are being asked to produce recommendation letters from local Congress leaders. Political discrimination by Gram Pradhans in UP and Mukhiyas in Bihar, as well as communal discrimination against Muslims in Gujarat and Rajasthan were also reported. Routine denial of minimum wages and unreasonably heavy criteria of manual labour as a basis for wages were common complaints. The decision to remove the food-grain component of wages under NREG Scheme was condemned, given the rampant hunger and rising prices of essential commodities. The gathering demanded immediate restoration of the food-grain component of wages under NREG Scheme.

Memorandum to the Rural Development Ministry

The experiences and suggestions of thousands of participants were conveyed to the Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh through a memorandum.

While the Jan Sunvai was in progress a delegation comprising AIALA President, Com. Rameshwar Prasad. Vice President Krishna Adhikari and General Secretary Dhirendra Jha met the Minister and handed over a memorandum of demands. Apart from demanding urgent and universal extension of the NREGA to the whole of the country, the delegation called upon the rural development minister to take immediate steps to ensure effective implementation of the Act. In particular, they called for

(a) ending partisan/political discrimination:

(b) prompt issuance of job cards to all applicants without any numerical restriction or delay

(c) daily disbursal of wages on the basis of 7 hour working day for men and 6-hour working day for women (the present practice of piece rate wage for heavy manual labour like digging of 100 cubic feet of earth is deterring women and even middle-aged men and forcing them to work often for two days or even more to earn one day's wage)

(d) restoration of foodgrain component of wage according to the wish and requirements of workers, and

(e) punitive measures against bureaucrats who are callous and indifferent to the implementation of the Act and who are found to be condoning and even promoting violations of the provisions of the Act

(f) extension of PDS to make at least 50 kgs of subsidised rice/wheat available at Rs. 2 per kg to every family

(g) mandatory suspension of DM in case of any instance of starvation death in the respective district

(h) extension of public monitoring down to panchayat level through direct participation of representatives of agricultural labour organisations in local employment guarantee councils

– Srilata Swaminathan, Radhika Menon & Sanjay Sharma

Addressing the Jansunwai, CPI(ML) General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya commented that the PM in his Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, hailed the NREGA as a historic piece of legislation. But in the courts of the rural poor and concerned citizens of India , Governments stand convicted of subverting the very idea of employment guarantee. Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, UP, and Bengal are emerging as a zone of starvation and hunger deaths, while the dismantling of the PDS continues unabated. He said, “The poor who fight for their rights are often accused of taking the law in their hands. The NREGA experience has clearly shown how necessary it is for organised agricultural labourers to take the Act in their own hands, else the Act will only be condemned to be violated, abused and then dumped at a suitable moment. This is the lesson of all rights and Acts and welfare measures starting from the right to vote and land reforms to the NREGA and RTI.” He said that be it the thousands of agrarian workers who have come to Delhi to attend the first-ever People's Tribunal on the NREGA, or the farmers who have come today to Dadri to protest against displacement by corporate SEZs, popular agrarian struggles everywhere are having to face State repression. In Chhattisgarh, the State repression is being disguised as a 'peace campaign' in the name of the Salwa Judum – but it is inflicting suffering and displacement on the tribals. Dipankar said that the NREGA and the Right to Information Act (RTI) were the much-touted showpieces of the CMP and the UPA Government. Now, even as reports of rampant corruption in NREGA are coming to light, the UPA Government is busy trying to subvert the RTI Act in order to protect corrupt bureaucrats and politicians. He called upon agricultural labourers to thwart this attempt and forge a fighting unity with small and middle peasants to punish the UPA government for inflicting starvation and suicides on the rural poor.

At the Public Hearing, almost all states reported that the gradual dismantling of the PDS was sharpening rural distress. One of the demands that was echoed almost by everybody was that of a revamped and extended PDS to make at least 50 kg of essential food grains (rice and wheat) available to every rural poor household at the subsidised rate of Rs. 2 per kg. Blackmarketeers of subsidised food-grains should be severely penalised.

The reports from the various states were heard in which Ravi Kumar Phangcho spoke of the suffering of labourers in Karbi Anglong & North Kachar Hills; Parmeshwar Mahto spoke of the anti-people attitude of the Jharkhand BJP government; Kamta Prasad Singh exposed the Bihar government's corruption and duplicity; Bablu Bannerjee reported on W.Bengal government's double-speak; Narottam Sharma and Nilanjan Bhattacharya detailed the plight of tribals in Chhattisgarh and Orissa respectively; Rakesh laid bare Mulayam's shenanigans in UP; while Kailash Pandey uncovered the plight of the hill people in Uttarakhand; Shabana Khatoon moved the audience with her stories of the plight and resistance of women in Bihar; Comrade Bhagwant Samaon from Punjab and Srilata from Rajasthan made scathing attacks on their respective state governments. All the speakers were unanimous in exposing the farce that the state governments were enacting in the name of NREGA whether, Congress/UPA, BJP/NDA, SP or even the CPI-M; they were also unanimous in articulating the anger and resentment of the labouring poor and in voicing the shared resolve to expand the unity and intensify the struggles of agricultural labourers against this injustice.

The gathering also included Aruna Roy, Sandip Pandey, Nikhil Dey, Human rights lawyer Prem Kishen Sharma. Peasant leader Subhash Lomte and many others who joined their voices with those of the distressed rural poor, and expressed solidarity with their struggle against the callousness of Governments. AIALA's National President Rameshwar Prasad, Vice Presidents Swadesh Bhattacharya and Krishna Adhikari, General Secretary Dhirendra Jha, Secretaries Janardan Prasad, Sanjay Sharma and Satyadev Ram were present in the Public Hearing. AIALA National Executive member Vidyanand Vikal conducted the proceedings.

The Jury of the Public Hearing was comprised of noted economists Amit Bhaduri and Jean Dreze, Prof. Manoranjan Mohanti, Journalist Anil Chamaria, General Secretary of AICCTU Swapan Mukherjee, CPI(ML) Central Committee members Rajaram and Srilata Swaminathan, veteran tarde union leader from Punjab Comrade Tarsem Jodha, AIALA Vice President Pawan Sharma and Ex-MLA from Jharkhand Bahadur Oraon. The Jury concluded in its judgement that


Comrade Shrikant Ram

Comrade Shrikant Ram (19) succumbed to a fatal accident on 17 August while on his way to Delhi to attend the People's Tribunal on NREGA. He was traveling along with several other comrades from his native village Usman Chak in Masaurhi block of Patna when he accidentally fell down from the fast moving Jan Sadharan Express near Firozabad railway station. When the news reached Delhi , his whereabouts were inquired through the concerned governmental authorities and it turned out that the local police had already cremated his body as 'unclaimed'. AIALA National Executive member Vidyanand Vikal rushed to Firozabad to visit the site of the accident and met the local authorities who could not explain why the police had displayed such undue haste.

Comrade Shrikant Ram was a devoted party cadre and very enthusiastic activist. We pay our homage to Comrade Shrikant and express our heartfelt condolences to his bereaved family. The local Party unit organised a memorial meeting in his village on August 20.

" after listening to the experiences of agricultural labourers who had come from all corners of the country, this Jury feels that it is not only a matter of grave concern for all of us but also of great shame that the central and state governments and their administrative machinery are putting up the biggest obstacles in the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which was passed by Parliament. The most distressing fact is that political parties of different hues which are in power in different states as well as in the centre, have shown the same attitude of indifference to the needs of employment of agricultural labourers. This Jury feels that the poor and downtrodden of this country and the entire segment of the working class has no choice but to wage a concerted struggle for the guarantee of their right to work. This Jury also feels that any form of struggle, undertaken by the agricultural labourers, challenging the government, its administrative machinery and their nexus with the rich and the powerful would be entirely justified. This Jury expresses its faith in the struggling capacity of the rural poor and agricultural labourers and feels that once they return to their own regions they would continue their battle for the guarantee of their rights. This is the mandate of democracy. The Jury also expresses hope in the tradition of resistance that the working class of the country has always upheld and says that such efforts alone would strengthen as well as keep alive the spirit of democracy. "

Concluding the Jansunwai, AIALA National President Comrade Rameshwar Prasad issued a rousing call to spread the movement for implementation of the NREGA to every corner of the country, and to make the struggle more popular and militant than ever. It was with this resolve and confidence that the participants ended the Public Hearing.