“How many of you in the class are Political”, Nikhil Dey asked and only a few hands went up, the next question from him was “How many of you are apolitical”, I raised my hand, after all over the years, I had developed a sage like unattachment to the political happenings of the country except on the day of voting. This time too only a few hands had gone up. Nikhil smiling within himself announced that all of us are political whether we know about it or not. He explained that we are political within our own spheres of life if not thinking about the national level. Equality and the desire to be treated with respect is something that everyone feels the need for, Instances in which we are deprived of this makes us political, and urges us to find ways to remedy the situation.
With his Jola and Kurta, Nikhil looked like the typical social worker who goes door to door educating people on one thing or the other. It is hard to believe that standing in front of us was a man who was very instrumental in getting the RTI (Right to Information Act) and NREGA acts being passed by the parliament. He attributes his involvement in the passage of these acts as a sheer luck and nothing more.
Born and brought up in a well to do family, Nikhil didn’t have much of an opportunity to observe the real
which was lying beyond the boundaries and walls of the big cities. He was schooled in some of the best institutions and completed his graduation in India . He says that he had a questioning mind and used to involve himself in discussion and debates. Politics was something that interested him at a very young age itself. After coming back to America , he decided to observe the functioning of our democracy up close by attending the parliament sessions of the Lok sabha. “What I found there was a group of people who were more interested in themselves than in helping the country to progress in any meaningful way” said Nikhil. He observed that a country which was so political before independence had taken to complete apathy towards politics after India , leaving everything to the politicians. These politicians were people who were wholly disconnected with the ground level and made policies and decisions according to their perceptions. Independence
Nikhil then decided to get a first hand feel of the villages of the country and the problems and difficulties they suffered. In 1990, he along with two others Shankar singh and Aruna roy went to a village called Devdongri in Rajasthan, to stay with the villagers, understand their difficulties and to see if they can help them in any way. Adjusting to the life of the village was not easy for the city bred and more so to Nikhil. According to him finally everyone reaches a stage where he/she gets adjusted to the changed circumstances but the time varies from individual to individual. The villagers were very suspicious about these new people who had come in and concluded that they were in league with some mining mafia, but over the days the mistrust started giving way to trust.
Nikhil and his team observed that many of the villagers owned very small tracts of land and thus depended on government supplied jobs such as the Rojgar yojna. Even after working for the full day many of the laborers were being paid only half their wages with the rest being siphoned off by the middle men who were the officials appointed by the government. Materials used for work were of substandard quality and close to 70-80% of the funds were being siphoned off before it reached the farmers. Livelihood was the most important thing for these farmers and protecting it was very essential. The three of them decided to form a group called Mazdoor Kissan Shakti Saganthan (MKSS). They identified that it is very essential to get the information of the government records in terms of bill payment of materials, labor records etc before they could embark on helping the farmers to get their rights in terms of full payment for their labor.
With videos, role plays, village meetings, Nikhil and his friends tried to spread awareness among the villagers on the need for them to know what is there in the government records. Information was the essential and crucial thing in this fight and the villagers had to be educated on the necessity of fighting for information. With the pressure being brought on the government with the help of media and the relentless effort of the group they finally managed to get the RTI act passed by the Rajasthan government. Nikhil admitted to one of the questions that before the act was passed in the assembly there were hardly any supporters on their side and if not for the political situations of the time it may not even have happened.
Armed with the RTI, Nikhil went back to the villages digging up government records and putting them in front of people. In one of the videos, at a large gathering Nikhil calls out different individuals who were supposed to have benefitted from various schemes but were blissfully unaware about it. With forged signatures and unethical means the government officials had gobbled it all up. In the same video Nikhil visits the house of a village panch who is hand in glove with the government officials in making money and shows off his beautiful house aquired through illegal means.
Nikhil says that their activities have today helped to bring the labor related corruption down to a large extent, but still there were other issues cropping up. The maximum labor amount for NREGA was 100 Rs for a period of 100 days in a year. Over the past 2-3 years the food inflation has exploded but this amount has not increased. It would be very difficult for people to survive on this amount in the present macro economic scenario. Currently he is sitting in a dharna protesting this lacuna in the NREGA policy. His contention is that the government servants get to set themselves their own salaries and in-fact the salaries paid to the government servants of Rajasthan was more than the tax collected by the government. Thus a government is propped up to feed itself without any benefits to the society.
His final parting words were, we get to make choices every day in our lives, it is important to first have control over our lives before trying to make an impact on others. Every life is a revolution in its own and thinking on our priorities and happiness is very essential. Summing it up he said don’t try to cheat yourself by your choices, it will not lead to happiness; follow what you really want to do.
Even today Nikhil and his coworkers at MKSS draw minimum wages in a show of solidarity with people they are striving to help.