We are harbingers of change

Adapted from Ajmal, Z.

During the last few weeks that I have been in Sargana, campaigning for elections to local government councils has been intense. Under India’s 73rd Constitutional Amendment, each local government council, called the Gram Panchayat, is responsible for implementing schemes for economic development and social justice.  Therefore, elections to the posts of the President and the councillors of the Gram Panchayat are an important event in the collective life of the people living within its jurisdiction. The post of the President of Sargana’s Gram Panchayat has been ‘reserved’ for a woman from the historically oppressed Scheduled Caste communities. A total of 19 women are contesting this position. An overwhelming majority of them are agricultural labourers who work either on their own small and marginal plots or, less so, on the farms of their better-off neighbours. At least eight of them supplement their household incomes with the remittances conveyed by their husbands or sons who work for wealthy farmers in the Punjab State, nearly a thousand kilometres to the northwest. Families such as theirs constitute nearly 25% of all households in Sargana who combine local employment with migrant labour elsewhere in India. Migrant labour is transient in nature, with workers spending six to eight months in a year in places as widespread as Punjab, Delhi, Rajasthan, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh.  Their occupational diversity is mind-numbing, combining as they do agricultural work with combinations of brick-laying, head-loading, masonry, plumbing, working in small-scale manufacturing units, vending vegetables, riding cycle rickshaws and driving cars for urban middle classes. None of these detracts from their enthusiasm for the Panchayat elections, in which- as I observed, a number of them actively campaigned for their wives.

It is the family of one of these candidates, Kamla Rishi, with whom we will be closely interacting with during the rest of the year. Like Kamla’s husband Jaydeep Rishi combines agricultural work with being a master mason (raj mistry) during the four months in a year when he lives in Sargana. During the remainder of the year, he works as a master mason for the construction of gurudwaras (Sikh place of worship) in different destinations in Punjab, Jammu and Patna. He has been in the construction industry for over 25 years, almost entirely involved in the construction of gurudwaras. Jaydeep began his work in the construction industry as one of the millions of workers plying bricks and laying them out carefully during the construction of gurudwaras. Gradually, he picked up the skill of being a mason by closely observing the other masons, one of whom took him under his wing. He was able to combine his skills in masonry with organising and supplying much-needed labour to the construction of gurudwaras to eventually become a master mason.

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Credit: Zaheeb Ajmal

Reflecting on the changes that have occurred around him during the last 25 years, Jaydeep notes that caste-based discrimination which was once commonplace has reduced. He attributes this change to the ascendance of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the State’s Chief Minister between 1990 and 2005. Jaydeep refers fondly to the ‘lantern’, the electoral symbol of Lalu Yadav’s political party. “Ever since the lantern arrived, our various communities- Rishidevs, Paswans, etc.- have become stronger,” he says referring to the twenty-odd communities who comprise the Scheduled Castes in Bihar. “The lantern enforced affirmative action for our people, told us the value of education and made sure schools were located in our hamlets, and ensured that we could live with dignity. That we can even think of contesting elections today- without the backing of the powerful people in the village- is due to the confidence inspired in us by the lantern all those years ago.”

Jaydeep is convinced that poor people’s participation as electoral contests is key to consolidating social change. “It is only the poor who can think about the entire village,” he says. “The rich will only think about themselves. If someone asks a poor person for help, they are more likely to help than the rich are.” And he concludes his observation by affirming: “Poor people benefit from social change. The rich don’t. So, it is natural that we will be the harbingers of change”.

While Sargana’s landed and ‘high-status’ communities scoff at such claims and, indeed at the entire system of affirmative action for Scheduled Castes, others echo Jaydeep’s views. Shamdev Mandal is a small farmer from one of the ‘intermediary’ communities- neither ‘high status’ nor ‘untouchable’. He agrees that the government’s policy provides an opportunity to the poorest people to take part in the government and to make them stakeholders. Also, poor people are more likely to understand and appreciate the plight of others in poverty. Mahendra Yadav, also from one of the region’s ‘intermediary’ communities, agrees.

It is difficult indeed to counter their observations.

If you were to follow Kamla’s election campaign closely, you might be disappointed by its simplicity. Kamla and Jaydeep set out every morning with their entourage of three bicycles. Kamla pillion rides as Jaydeep pedals away on one, while their neighbours accompany them on the other two. You are even more likely to be tired out because they park their cycles at the entrance of one of Sargana’s many hamlets and proceed from house to house meeting inmates and explaining their program to them. No cars, no assistants, just some friends and her husband to accompany her. They explain that they will ensure that each hamlet is connected by at least a brick-laid path to the main road and that people are able to access their social entitlements. They refrain from making grand promises of concrete roads, community halls and the like. Their underplayed performance perhaps reflects the fact that they are novices in the art of electioneering.

Jaydeep will stay in Sargana till the votes are counted. If Kamla wins, he will stay back to help her with Panchayat work. But if she doesn’t, he will travel to northwest India like millions of other people from Bihar to labour in the region’s burgeoning construction sites. My colleague Ankur Jayaswal will follow Jagadish’s nephew Surendra to Punjab, and spend some time with him there. I will stay on in Sargana and bring to you a flavour of the lives, loves and labours of this village’s people.

Stay tuned for my next blog on the Gram Panchayat elections in Sargana.

The original blog post in Hindi is available here: http://centreforequitystudies.org/category/life-on-the-move