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We need a politics of the poor: Nikhil Dey

By Pradeep Baisakh

Social activist Nikhil Dey discusses the flaws in the Lokpal, Grievance Redressal, Food Security and other bills

Nikhil Dey

Nikhil Dey, key member of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) and founder of the Rajasthan-based people's organisation MKSS (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan), was in Orissa recently on invitation from the state government to guide social audits in the MGNREGA. In this interview with Infochange, he discusses the essence of the Grievance Redressal Bill, loopholes in the Food Security Bill, dangers in the Lokpal Bill, which is currently in Parliament, and the need for structural arrangements for social audit in the MGNREGA.

You have been advocating the Grievance Redressal Bill. Can you tell us what stage the bill is at now? And how it is going to help citizens?

The bill is necessary, as in India there is no proper institution where one's complaint is heard in an appropriate manner. We now have a number of rights-based legislations and even in those we have a very poor grievance redressal mechanism. Instead of having different kinds of mechanisms to redress grievances in each piece of legislation, you need one standard minimum formulation across the country that anyone who has a complaint can register under, get a dated receipt for, have his complaint heard within a certain timeframe, and get an action taken report within that time schedule. That is the only way to ensure that citizens get some level of accountability.

This is complementary to the state's Public Service Guarantee Bill; it is not duplication. It ensures that complaints are heard and sorted out. It has been tabled in the Lok Sabha and is now lying with the standing committee.

There are some shortcomings in the bill. We hope they will be sorted out in due course.

Are you happy with the Right to Food Bill as it has been presented in parliament?

We are happy only with the fact that right to food legislation is coming in. But there are many shortcomings. It is in fact wrong to call it a Right to Food Bill. It should be called either a Ration Entitlement Bill or a Foodgrain Entitlement Bill. Even with that limited view, there are many in-built implementation problems. There are so many categories in it that identifying them will be problematic. It has been seen from experience that such experiments have been successful only through universalisation.

The quantum of entitlement provided in the bill is too little, and the debate is whether India has enough foodgrain. Even if you do not have enough foodgrain in the country, you cannot have people starving.

The attempt to bring in a cash transfer system is very dangerous. It will absolve the state of responsibility and become just a dole.

But the government defends the bill citing huge financial implications amounting to Rs 1 lakh crore a year…

All through, activists have been saying that the government can provide corporate subsidies to the tune of Rs 5 lakh crore a year. Why can it not provide subsidy on a basic service like supplying food? The government cannot cite the financial implications argument with food.

On the availability of foodgrain, the government has to find a way out. Even if some affluent people get (the foodgrain meant for the poor), it does not matter, they are only getting food. You are finally maintaining a basic level of consumption among the populace.

The Anna movement gave leadership to the people on the issue of corruption. You have your differences with them. While some say that the Anna movement had a rightist bias, some also allege that you played into the hands of the Congress with the intent of keeping the BJP at bay. How do you respond to these allegations?

We have no intentions in the course of the campaign of trying to keep the BJP at bay. A strong and powerful policing agency against corruption will not provide any fundamental benefit to the people. It is true that high-level corruption needs a powerful police agency at the top. But extending that to all branches of government and democratic institutions and having the same agency deal with it right down to the bottom, including grievances, is to our mind impossible, and a threat to democracy. The National Campaign on People's Right to Information (NCPRI) believes that a combination of bills would be much stronger. This is not something that the Congress Party advocates at all. So the idea that we have done it to save the Congress is not true at all.

We do not believe that legislation is the only way to fight corruption. It's much more important for activists to fight against corruption within the movement. Every party in power including the Congress, the BJP and others, have charges of corruption levelled against them.

Was the timing of your press meet appropriate? The NCPRI held a press meet just after Digvijay Singh and Manish Tiwari stopped speaking to the press. This breeds suspicion in people's minds…

If you see the government dealing with Anna Hazare's movement: sometimes it was very accommodating and sometimes it was very hostile. After all, the Anna team sat with the government in the joint drafting committee; none of us sat.

In the joint drafting committee there were only Team Anna members and representatives from government. Others will have to speak from somewhere. We do not agree with many provisions in the Jan Lokpal, and we agree with many.

Wherever government did anything anti-democratic, we have come out strongly. We do not agree with Ramdev at all. But when the attack took place on his dharna, by the government, we came out with a statement saying it was anti-democratic. When Anna Hazare was not given permission to sit in dharna, we said he must be given permission.

Democracy should have space for expression of different voices. If that voice is trampled by saying that you are pro-government, then it's sad for democracy.

About the timing of the press meet, in fact that was not the first time we spoke out. We have spoken many times before that.

How do you see the current Lokpal Bill? Has the government done justice to the bill?

It's a mix of two things. It's a powerful structure, not a weak structure. But it is a dangerous structure because the government will select the people who will man it as majority government representatives in the selection committee. Removal will be recommended by the President, which is, in fact, the government's recommendations. The other problem is not having an independent investigating agency. On the positive side, sanction for investigations and prosecution has been done away with. Confiscation of disproportionate assets has been brought in. But the amendment that it will not be applied to the states is a big loss. The common people will have very limited benefit from it. Despite the federalism debate, the Prevention of Corruption Act is an all-India act. Think: If RTIA had not applied to the states, how limited its use would have been…

People have been surprised at the difference of opinion between the Annas, Arunas, Kejriwals or Nikhils on this issue; they compare this disagreement in civil society to that of politicians...

It is important to understand that civil society is also a political class in a way. Change will come only through politics. Some may sit in parliament, some may use the democratic polity of agitation and pressure, some may do constructive work in the village. These are different aspects of how political decisions are taken. In civil society too you will have differences, you will have very poor performing social activists, and you will have corruption there also.

Whatever way you define politics, what I meant is that people have lost faith in party-based politics…

That is the problem of our middle class tendency of rejecting everyone. Actually, people have not lost faith in political parties. When people voted for, say Mayawati in the earlier Uttar Pradesh elections, they voted with a strong commitment towards a particular party.

Are electoral reforms the answer?

Electoral reform is only a technocratic solution. Politics cannot be done with technocratic solutions. We need to have a politics of the poor where state policies can be influenced in favour of the poor.

You are here in Orissa to guide the government on the social audit process in the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act), wherein the government wants to bring a structural arrangement in line with Andhra Pradesh. There is so much talk about corruption in the MGNREGA in the state in the wake of the ongoing CBI inquiry. But the major issue here is delayed payments. And distress migration has increased in Orissa, post-MGNREGA.

Social audit is only one way, but an important, much more people-centric, way. Social audit is not only to fight corruption; it goes beyond that. The first phase of social audit is an entitlement audit: Getting job cards, timely work, timely payments, compensation for delayed payments, and whether improvements have taken place over time. These are the things that are scrutinised first. In the second phase, you see the corruption angle. The financial audit does not have that scope.

It's true that in several parts of the country, social audits have been a sham. But we have examples in Andhra Pradesh and other pockets that show that if you give people a chance through social audits there can be dramatic results in delivery of the scheme.

To put in place such a structure that functions in a desirable way is not at all a simple task. We are here with a very limited mandate of searching for the right person to be social audit director.

The MGNREGA has had two impacts. The wage rate has gone up in many parts of the country and it has given people bargaining power. And I think it has reduced distress migration in many parts of the country, particularly of women. If the MGNREGA gives 100 days of work, at least the women stay back. So, entire family migration has been reduced to male migration. Women and children staying in the village means schooling and health are better taken care of. Therefore, there is a lot of rethinking about the kind of work to be provided under the MGNREGA.

In coastal areas of Orissa, I find work is done by machines and people do not seem to be too needy for this kind of work. Is it not possible to reduce the quota in coastal areas and increase it in the interior tribal belts where people are needier?

Actually, there is no shortage of funds for the MGNREGA. This year, about half the available money has been spent. Rs 53,000 crore was available, and at the end of the year, I think only Rs 27,000-28,000 crore will be spent. Sahariya tribes families in Baran district in Rajasthan, we have seen bonded labourers freed and the state government putting 100 days more work for people there.

We should fight at both the central and state government level to increase employment in backward areas. Money is not a problem. Let the coastal areas have 100 days of guaranteed employment. For example, Kerala, Haryana, Punjab, etc, are states where it is felt that the MGNREGA is not required. Actually there we have seen women come to work and it helps their income and helps in village development. Roads are made; water harvesting structures are built… So, all the micro and sustainable development that we have been talking about is coming through the MGNREGA.

(Pradeep Baisakh is a freelance journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa)

Infochange News & Features, April 2012