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The wages of protest

ARUNDHATI DHURU & SANDEEP PANDEY

While the RTI Act and the audit provisions of NREGA enable ordinary people to demand accountability from governments, it doesn’t always work like that on the ground. There have been several cases recently in U.P., where the demand for rights by workers has been met with violence…


The political ruling class has decided to deal with the demands being raised by workers for their legal rights strongly.

Photo: AP

People power? NREGA doesn’t work as advertised everywhere.

The advent of the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act were a breakthrough in Indian democracy. They provided the openings in a system which was opaque, insensitive and impersonal to the common citizens of this country. The ruling elite which was not prepared to be answerable to people at all had to relent. They realised that, after all, they are functioning in a democracy which is created in the name of the people. People began asking questions under the RTI Act and started conducting social audits under NREGA, which were revolutionary ideas given the kind of system we have inherited from the British and given the mindset bureaucracy develops when it is entrenched in this system. People did achieve success using the RTI and the social audit provision and a definite empowerment was taking place.

However, it looks as if it’s been decided that enough is enough. People could be allowed the luxury of only so much transparency and accountability. They could not transgress the limit beyond which the unquestioned supremacy of the ruling elites stood to be challenged. The initial fear in their minds towards these pro-people laws has vanished and now they are dealing with people demanding their basic rights under these Acts with vengeance. They have decided to quell every voice which raises questions about their highhandedness with utmost contempt and violence if necessary. The administrative machinery, which is supposed to be responsible for implementing these laws, is being used by the people’s representatives with impunity.

Plenty of discrepancies

In the Dumri Village Panchayat of Kasya Block of Kushinagar district of U.P., what started as an investigation into the discrepancies in Below Poverty Line survey, on a complaint made by some villagers, turned into a full fledged investigation into bungling in development funds which came through the Panchayat. Discrepancies were observed by an Assistant Commissioner in the Rural Development Department in the housing schemes for poor as well as NREGA. Advocate Udaybhan Yadav, who was instrumental in getting this investigation done, was threatened by the Gram Pradhan Dinesh Verma and his men. On February 28, 2009, when the men of Gram Pradhan were beating a dalit labourer Parasuram, who was vocal in questioning the fake muster roll in which wages were withdrawn in his name whereas he had not even worked under NREGA, Udaybhan intervened. He was also beaten up. A dalit, Kapil Dev, receiving patronage from the Pradhan, registered a FIR against Udaybhan and a case under (Prevention of) Atrocities against S.C./S.T. Act was filed. Under political pressure, Udaybhan and his father Hari Yadav were arrested on March 9. Parasuram’s brother Ram Bharat and father Jaikaran were also arrested but released later.

Fight for wages

In the village Panchayat Aira Kake Mau of Bharawan Block of Hardoi District, workers had assembled on January 14, 2009, at the door of the Gram Pradhan as previously agreed, to seek their unpaid wages. The husband of the Gram Pradhan, Ghanshyam, who runs the show here on behalf of his wife, first tried to threaten the labourers. The police arrived when the situation became tense. When the workers wanted to file complaints against the Gram Pradhan for violation of their rights under the NREGA, Ghanshyam ordered his men to rain lathis on the labourers and social activists present there in support of the workers in the presence of the Station House Officer and the police of Atrauli Police Station. One dalit labourer, Medai, and a social activist, Ram Bharose, sustained injuries on the head. Although a case was filed against Ghanshyam, in spite of repeated applications to various authorities by dalit labourers who were present at the site of incident, (Prevention of) Atrocities against S.C./S.T. Act has not been used against Ghanshyam and no action has thus far been taken against him.

In Kopaganj Block of Mau district, labourers from the villages Devkali, Bishunpur, Purana Kopa and Jairamgarh, mostly women and dalit, had assembled at the office of the Block Officer, merely eight km from the district headquarters, to demand wages due for the last six months. One of the labourers was called inside the office for dialogue and beaten up by those inside. The labourers were furious. The Block Development Officer, Ram Dular and an employee, Sanjiv Singh, had to bear the brunt of the anger. Some women also got hurt in this scuffle. Full wages have still not been paid and nobody involved in beating the worker has been punished.

In the village Panchayat Rura of Kasmanda Block of District Sitapur, a pond deepening work was in progress on February 28, 2009. Some women labourers wandered off to drink water from a hand pump. The hand pump belonged to a powerful person from the locality, Madan Dixit, popularly know as Madan Muni in this area. The women had to face obscene comments. When the male members of the families wanted to register their protest against these obscene remarks, they were beaten up. When the workers reached the police station to file a case against their tormentors, Madan Muni was already there. The workers wanted to register a case under the (Prevention of) atrocities against the S.C./S.T. Act. The police asked them to come next morning in an attempt to arrive at a compromise. When the workers were unmoved from their demand the next day, two men and two women labourers were beaten by the police inside the police station. premises. With the help of social organisations of the area a case was finally registered against Madan Muni under the (Prevention of) atrocities against the S.C./S.T. Act but no action has been taken against the police personnel who were involved in beating the workers.

Underpaid

In the Cholapur Block of District Varanasi, about 200 workers belonging to Dhaurahra, Saryan and Munari were not paid their wages for about a month for deepening a pond in Saryan G.P. The Junior Engineer had measured the work and calculated payment of wages at the rate of Rs. 39.80 per day. The workers were not satisfied as for similar work in Dhaurahra G.P. workers were paid the minimum wages of Rs. 100 per day. On February 26, 2009, the Village Development Officer gave in writing that all workers would be paid at the rate of Rs. 100 per day on March 3, 2009. When the workers assembled on March 5, at the Block Office, the BDO was absent. On the advice of a Block employee they decided to block the Varanasi-Azamgarh Highway. The SHO of Cholapur P.S. arrived and the workers were lathi-charged quite mercilessly. About 50 people including approximately 10 women were badly hurt. Heerawati, who was pregnant, was also hurt. The SHO took 20 people and 50 bicycles with him to the police station and the workers were released on personal bonds. When asked as to what action he would take against the VDO for violating the legal rights of workers under NREGA by not paying the wages, the SHO said he was merely following the orders from the higher ups. He refused to reveal the name of the officer who had ordered lathi charge. The next day, wages at the rate of Rs. 42 per day were transferred into the accounts of the labourers.

The repression of workers is now emerging as a trend. The political ruling class has decided to deal with the demands being raised by workers for their legal rights strongly. The workers will be punished. The ruling elites realise that these demands ultimately will lead to a clamour for a more equitable society and wider and deeper participation of workers in the decision making process in our democracy. They do not want to give away this power easily. The above-mentioned incidents also indicate that the workers are now getting better organised than before. NREGA has at least helped achieve that. We hope that the problems of workers will be resolved within the constitutional framework peacefully and will lead to further democratisation of society and government.

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