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MGNREGA Activist to Voice Workers’ Issues in Upcoming Bihar Assembly Election

Saurav Kumar |
Sanjay Sahni, who has been working to expose the corruption in MGNREGA allotments and the nexus between elected representative and district administration for several years, will contest from Kurhani Assembly segment.
MGNREGA workers with posters of Sanjay Sahni.

MGNREGA workers with posters of Sanjay Sahni. Pic Credit: Saurav Kumar

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bihar’s political arena is gearing for the upcoming state Assembly polls. In early June, the first stint of electoral rehearsal was shown by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the form of a Virtual Rally. While COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the state, there is new entrant in the electoral fray.

Unlike seasoned politicians, this time a social figure, who has been running a constant campaign on behalf of thousands of workers, is going to put up a fight against BJP’s Kedar Nath Gupta. Sanjay Sahni is a MGNREGA activist who has geared up to register his presence in the election battle. Hailing from Kurhani Assembly segment, Sanjay’s preparation is in full swing and the campaigners accompanying him are none other than the Mahatma National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) workers of the area and adjoining blocks of Muzaffarpur district.

sanjay sahni

Sanjay Sahni, MGNREGA activist. Pic Credit Saurav Kumar

Kurhani Assembly constituency has a total of 2,50,268 eligible voters. During 2015 Assembly election, BJP had bagged the seat drubbing the Janata Dal (United) candidate which was then part of Mahagathbandhan along with Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress.

Sanjay, a class 7 dropout and former migrant worker in South-West Delhi’s Janakpuri, first came across the mismanagements of MGNREGA funds by the nexus of elected representative and district administration in 2011. Subsequently, he discovered the miseries of thousands of workers when h had come back to his village Mahant Maniyari in Kurhani block of Muzaffarpur. In 2013, putting in hard yards, Sanjay floated the ‘Samaj Parivartan Shakti Sangathan (SPSS)-MNREGA Watch’ to spread awareness among MGNREGA workers and act as a watchdog on policy implementation of the rural job scheme. His efforts slowly but steadily ensured 100 days work to the rural working class adding dignity to hardwork.

Sanjay’s accidental scrutiny of the rural job guarantee scheme turned out to be a determined crusade against those who allegedly swindled the funds. The whole procedure of securing rural jobs to workers under the scheme had several questionable issues. One of the first things he noticed was that the job card would be issued to workers on paper while the wages were distributed between the middlemen and block officials.

However, Sahni’s attempts to introduce transparency in allocation of work brought repercussions, too. In 2014, the first FIR was lodged against the activist and his organisation members. Since then. continuous intimidation in the form of death threats, violence and false FIRs turned into the new normal.

Also read: In Bihar, Jobless, Penniless MGNREGA Workers hit Hard by Pandemic Lockdown

The Mahant Maniyari village has also been in the news for wrong reasons including manufacture and supply of spurious country liquor that led to numerous deaths in Ratnauli village. Notably, SPSS members had helped bust this illegal liquor racket.

Talking to NewsClick, Sanjay Sahni reiterated that if MGNREGA is to serve the purpose it was envisaged with, that is to provide work to laboured and not let excess power to be concentrated in the hands of the Mukhiya (Village head) and block officials, then masses need to be made aware about ongoing affairs in their names and what they were entitled to. “That is why, I asked workers to put forward rightful demands like proper issuance of job card, 100 days work and timely payment,” he added.

Rescueing Migrant Workers

During the countrywide lockdown, when migrant workers from across the country were suffering due to the government’s ill-measured policies, Sanjay Sahni was one among many who took efforts to channelise the complaints of these workers. The flood of distress calls to Sahni gave rise to SWAN: Stranded Workers Action Network -- a diverse group of around 80 researchers, students, civil society groups and labour leaders who formed a system by which Sahni would provide them with bank account details of stranded workers and they would contact people registered with them to directly transfer cash to these accounts.

Workers who received money passed on the numbers to other groups they met, either at long queues for food or on the streets.

Rajendran Narayanan, Assistant Professor at the Azim Premji University (APU) and one of the convenors of SWAN, explained to NewsClick over phone how the SWAN initiative saw light of the day when Sahni began receiving several calls of distress from migrant workers—hailing from Bihar—during the initial days of lockdown. Being a former migrant worker himself, Sahni recognised their apathy and constantly attempted to help these stranded workers. Narayanan has also been actively involved in the Right to Food and Right to Work campaigns.

Speaking to NewsClick about the candidature of the MGNREGA activist, economist Jean Dreze said, “I came across this decision of our colleague (Sanjay), who is undoubtedly a committed and honest activist. He constantly has flagged concerns of MGNREGA workers in Bihar. Workers demanded him to be their representative so he took the decision to contest polls.”

“There is a sense of consciousness among the workers, which is why they are standing firmly behind Sanjay’s decision to contest in the upcoming Assembly election. So, we have collectively decided to support his candidature. His tryst with welfare for the downtrodden deserves to be coated with power to enact law in its factual state,” added Dreze.

Voice of MGNREGA workers

Mandeshri Devi (60) a MGNREGA worker of Mahant Maniyari, told NewsClick, “We are campaigning for Sanjay Sahni since month of February this year as we had clear motive to project him as our candidate in the upcoming Assembly election. The plight of the downtrodden can only be taken seriously by someone who has faced such hardships. Sanjay’s edifying effort brought a wave of awareness among MGNREGA workers that caused discomfort to the power gallery. We are distributing pamphlets, pasting posters in every village of the block and in midst of it, also engaged in flood relief work by distributing sattu, jaggery and chura (flattened rice) to flood victims of Kurhani, Marwan and Sakra block of the district.”

Also read: Bihar’s MGNREGA Workers Stare at Deeper Rural Stagnation

poster pasting campaign

Poster pasting campaign for Sanjay Sahni Pic Credit: Saurav Kumar

Mandeshri Devi, was among one of members of SPSS, who was charged with alleged homicide in 2018, along with Sahni, following the victim’s father’s threat to implicate leading members of SPSS.

“The corrupt local administration admonished our right to earn dignified livelihood through MGNREGA,” said Indu Devi (30), another worker of Ratnauli panchayat of the same block. She expressed that workers have never become subject of priority for any leader so projecting a worker hailing from backward section of society reassures them.

Since the pandemic-induced lockdown began, Sahni has written several times to the district administration detailing about the pending dues of hundreds of workers and also the need to assign them work to overcome the financial crunch that they had to face.

SPSS-NREGA Watch is estimated to have a total strength of 35,000 workers spread over 165 villages in 39 panchayats of Kurhani block.

For Magru Ram, a marginal farmer of Madhopur Susta, government subsidies, ration not being delivered on time due to unscrupulous methodology at panchayat level must be dealt firmly by someone (like Sanjay Sahni) who is honest and represents the poor.

Uma Shankar Ray, Post Master of Ratnauli Post Office while speaking with NewsClick hailed the activist’s transparent background filled with protests against misdeeds. But at the same time, he expressed his concern about Sahni ability in fighting the muscle-money nexus of the sitting MLA.

Sahni’s candidature remains independent of any political alliance and party. The larger aim is to obviate ‘Divisive politics with Decisive one’ with a welfare centric approach that includes emboldening of education, public health, employment, claims the MGNREGA Watch founder. The election manifesto is yet to reach public domain.

Ajay Sahni, a member of the activist’s campaign team said they would welcome outside support of any anti-NDA, anti-BJP party or alliance. “Meanwhile, constituents of Mahagathbandhan and Left parties are in touch over extending helping hand to the political entrant. The movement is running with peoples’ cooperation and small monetary donations from members and common man with a hope to challenge evil forces,” he added.

Also read: Struggling to Cope with Influx of Migrant Workers, MGNREGA is Bihar’s Only Way Out

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