Sunday, November 23, 2008

A talk by Nikhil Dey

Adapted (actually copy pasted) from the assignment in the SocEn.

Nikhil Dey is unassuming. Be it his demeanour, his speech, his size, his attire (and despite the fact that he carries three cell phones with him); it would be hard to surmise that this man has rallied hundreds to thousands in Rajasthan to fight the blatant siphoning of welfare funds meant for ordinary people.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) currently employs 15 full time workers in Rajasthan and is not registered nor does it receive any formal or institutional funding. It carries out public audits of funds which are meant for widows, retired workers, people handicapped or disabled from work and people who are supposed to be paid minimum wages for their labour. These funds are drained off on en route by middlemen, mostly the government workers who are charged with distributing them.

Nikhil Dey admits that he has had a more privileged life than most. Having had an education both in India and abroad, he admits that growing up in urban India cut him off (as it has the rest of the 300 million odd who live in large metropolises) from the rest of rural India – when shifting to the U.S., he says it took him three days to adjust to the new environment, whereas it took him much longer when he stayed at a village for the first time. In many ways, this shift was a search for his own roots.

In 1990, Nikhil, along with Shankar Singh and Aruna Roy, decided to go to a village and live with the people; not to form an NGO, but have their work and their contributions be defined by the people they would be living and working with. They believed that true learning would come from experience and practical work. Further, to gain an understanding of what plagued the villagers, they took it upon themselves to live by the minimum wage – right from the very beginning.

They saw that there were several farmers with extremely small patches of land, who, during a period of drought or an off season, would migrate towards cities in search of jobs. They also discovered that acts such as the National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (NREG), which was meant to provide every able bodied person with one hundred days of paid labour, was being misused and the wages being tapped by government officials. Signatures were being forged on rosters and on pension registers and the people who truly deserved the funds were not getting them. The group realised that the creation of livelihoods alone could bring these people out of their poverty. Hence they formed the MKSS.

As the MKSS, they held rallies, staged short skits, and composed songs to reach out to the people. Nikhil claims that everyone has an inbuilt sense of justice and what he and his team mates set out to do was to provide the people with a platform to raise their concerns. The video shown in class has a scene where an old feeble man is asked whether he had leased any of his buffalos to the government. He replies by saying that he has no buffaloes. According to Nikhil, there are hundreds of such people who want justice, but who are individually, incapable of bringing it about. His answer lies in the collective voice of the people – the public audit of funds used by the government as well as muster rolls and pension lists.

To this effect, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has helped the movement to a great deal. The MKSS itself has been instrumental in bringing about this revolutionary law which it itself uses to gather the information mentioned above. The members of the MKSS go from door to door asking if a person whose name is on these records whether or not they have received the support which has been documented. Most of the times, the people themselves are not even aware that they are entitled for such aid.

To solve these problems, we need to be ‘connected’, says Nikhil. He describes the MKSS as a flock of geese, migrating in the ‘V’ formation with what he refers to as the ‘super-goose’ leading the flock. Once it grows tired, the ‘super-goose’ relinquishes its position at the front and allows another goose to take its place and the lead, while it falls back into obscurity, all for the greater good of the flock. As was put forward (to much applause and banging on desks) by one of the villagers to the officials; “We are worried whether RTI will bring us food or not. You are worried whether RTI coming in will leave you with power or not. But what we all should be asking for is, tomorrow, with RTI, will this country exist or not.”

Politics in today’s world, Nikhil says, has assumed a dirty connotation. More so has the term ‘power politics’, indeed the political arena is intended only to be legislative – to draft and amend laws and not to build bridges or towers. This is change in the definition of the seat of power is what he aims to achieve. After all, “democracy”, he says, “is about making the truth powerful, making those who don’t have power become truthful, and making the powerful also truthful.” Further, the power to effect this change lies in the people, as do the answers as to how to go about it. Nikhil admits that when posed with difficult problems, it is not the MKSS which has all the answers. However if more people participate, answers will be brought forward. Such a system truly would be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Nikhil never started off thinking that they would get so big. Even now, he says he has to “pinch himself” to realise how far he and his friends have come. He understands the limitations of the individual and its frailty against the strength of the multiple, yet believes that the individual, while perhaps remaining incapable of changing the world, can still bring about incremental improvements. “Everyone’s own life is a revolution.” Whether or not we manage to change the world, we can control our own lives, our habits, the way we live, the relations we have with other people. A thought perhaps best summed up in a single sentence: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


ankita said...

I have come back to this more than once in the past couple of years.

डा.राजेंद्र तेला"निरंतर"(Dr.Rajendra Tela,Nirantar)" said...

Miss you lot,have been following on T V