• Feature

A rural protest for accountability and transparency brews in India

Facing extreme poverty and a lack of basic services, a movement in Rajasthan is renewing its push for an ambitious law to hold officials accountable.
A gathering at a bus station in Kotda to introduce the social accountability bill. (WNV/Meet Kakadiya)

In the heart of Jaipur, hundreds of protesters waved postcards in the air addressed to chief minister Ashok Gehlot on March 9. On the cards, workers from across Rajasthan, India’s largest state, wrote personal messages urging the government to pass a law on social accountability and transparency.

During the 20-day campaign, which ended on March 12, there were catchy jingles, Rajasthani songs and puppetry demanding government officials be held accountable for not resolving citizens’ complaints about access to basic services, ending corruption, making information on governance easily accessible and protecting the security of whistleblowers. Passage of the law would give citizens more bargaining power in terms of accessing services or information in the state.

At a time when, according to Freedom House, India’s status has declined to only “partly free” under Narendra Modi’s government and dissent is being clamped down on, there was almost a hint of festivity as people demanded their rights.

The action in Jaipur was just one part of an ongoing movement called Soochna Evam Rozgar Abhiyaan, or SERA, which involves around 100 unions and civil society organizations. In December, SERA began a march to demand accountability, also known as the Jawabdehi Yatra, which covered around 1,800 miles in its first phase.

Union members holding postcards with a message for Ashok Gehlot demanding he pass the Social Accountability Bill in March. (WNV/Meet Kakadiya)

Starting with around 120 marchers, the action grew over time. According to organizers, the numbers swelled to 4,000 for the seminars and rallies during the day. The activists would travel from one district to another in a bus. As the campaign continued, more people joined with hired cars and buses. The team slept in schools, independent halls run by organizations and houses of locals.

Aiming to march through the state’s 33 districts, the action — which marries causes from across the political spectrum — will resume in May and continue through the summer.

A movement is born

The movement began in December 2015 in Rajasthan’s various districts where activists met locals in smaller groups before descending on Jaipur, where they held workshops, met local officials and protested. This was during the tenure of the conservative BJP government in Rajasthan, and activists exposed the lack of accountability for everyday failings by those in power.

“It came to light that a large number of pensioners were declared dead on paper by the Rajasthan government and missed out on pensions for months,” said Nikhil Shenoy, a member of the people’s organization Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, or MKSS. “Poor teacher-student ratios in schools was another major reason behind the campaign. In one case, there were three teachers in a school for 800 girl students. It was heartbreaking.”

Over the next couple years, the movement continued to intensify across districts and at the state level, demanding new policies to address local concerns. The Indian National Congress, then in the opposition, promised to pass the accountability law in 2018 before the state election.

After winning the elections, the Indian National Congress government announced the formation of a committee to draft the bill in 2019 and submitted its report the following year. Despite this initial progress, the law has yet to pass, which led activists to resume their march for accountability in December 2021.

Protesters went to different neighborhoods of marginalized communities in Jaipur to record grievances and register them through an online portal. (WNV/Meet Kakadiya)

In 18 districts, the workers’ organizations have led activities like street theater and meetings where they informed people of the need for such a law in smaller groups. They also asked people about their grievances and the difficulties they face in their everyday lives. These district-level protests focused on local issues and paved the way for a bigger gathering in Jaipur, where workers from across the state came to build pressure on the administration to pass the law.

MKSS founder Nikhil Dey told protesters at a rally that if the social accountability law is passed it will be “the mother of all laws.” “Most laws are weak when they come to their accountability mechanism,” he said. “The social accountability law will change this.”

Under the proposed legislation, citizens will have the right to obtain delivery of services and redress of their complaints within a specified time period. Public authorities will also publish a citizens’ charter, which will document the services that the government departments will deliver along with a stipulated timeline, and establish centers that will share information with the public. The proposed law also has a provision to create a social audit that will ensure citizens are heard. The law includes a punitive clause that will hold grievance officers liable if they do not act in a timely manner.

Rural discontent

Rajasthan is not new to social justice movements — it is the genesis of the more than decade-long struggle for the Right to Information Act, game-changing legislation passed in 2005 that empowers citizens to access information.

At the protest site in Jaipur, workers spoke about the need for better wages and more work days through a law known as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGA. Designed to reduce rural unemployment and poverty, on paper the law guarantees 100 days of work annually to rural people — in land development, irrigation, creating infrastructure for livestock and other projects — at a minimum wage fixed by the state. However, the reality is different. The national BJP government has curtailed funding for MGNREGA, leading to a lack of work in rural areas.

Workers at the protest also want land titles under the Forest Rights Act, better facilities for education and health, widow pensions and compensation for those suffering from silicosis. Rajasthan has a policy to compensate victims of the occupational disease, however, many people still await payment.

“The most unique part of this protest is that it’s a rural protest,” said Amit Bhasole, who teaches economics at the Azim Premji University. “The profile of the movement involves protesters who are the poorest in any community.”

Over 4,000 union members from Jawaja protest in support of the accountability law. (WNV/Meet Kakadiya)

After struggling to find work, Misri Devi Rawat, who lives in the village of Khodmal, joined the MKSS a year ago and participated in the march in Jaipur to demand dignity as a worker. Without the support of an organization, Rawat and her daughter-in-law felt vulnerable in negotiating with the local administration. Rawat said the mobilization was the way forward to demand rights before the government, and her account echoes the narratives of other women who came to the protest site.

The 64-year-old Hari Shankar joined the protest to demand better educational facilities across villages in the district of Udaipur. “The state of classrooms in villages in my district is appalling,” he said. “I am here today to demand better infrastructural facilities for the education of children. What kind of future are we guaranteeing them if we cannot provide a better teaching environment to them?”

The historic year-long farmers’ protest, which involved hundreds of thousands and led to the repeal of three contentious farm laws last year, demonstrated the importance of democratic movements in India. It also paved the way for stronger movements on other issues, including the call for accountability.

“The farmers’ protest has been very inspirational in the social movement space and people have seen a certain kind of organizational force which is not possible to ignore,” Bhasole said.

“This will play a significant role in building confidence. But it should also be said that we have not seen any other protest with the scale of the farmers’ protest in the current times. It is not easy to think of other movements replicating this successfully.”

One of the key strengths of the latest farmers’ movement — and similarities to the struggle for accountability — was how participatory it was, according to Shenoy. “The biggest takeaway was how the farmers’ movement built an alliance among other organizations and married different causes,” he said. “It was not an isolated fight and hence the support for it was massive. The farmers were not only fighting for themselves.”

The accountability campaign has also democratized public information in a user-friendly way for people across social strata, which was not the case before, Bhasole added. People are being told about their rights, being made aware of the law, and are being encouraged to file their grievances. The marginalized did not have access to this information before.

‘We will continue’

With the government cracking down on protests, Rajendran Narayanan, an assistant professor at Azim Premji University, said states being ruled by the BJP are less likely to see dissent spilling onto the streets. But it is possible for protests to scale up in Rajasthan, he suggested, since it is ruled by the Indian National Congress.

In the coming months, MKSS’s Mukesh Goswami said they will build pressure on the state government through small gatherings in districts involving workers from many villages. In May, the march will resume in the city of Kota, followed by indefinite sit-ins in front of prominent administrative buildings in Jaipur, accompanied by seminars and discussions.

“The movement will be intensified through regular public meetings, highlighting the need for passing the accountability law, involving district authorities, and engaging the regional media on the local issues,” Goswami said. “The smaller gatherings will eventually pave the way for a bigger gathering at the state level.”

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SERA will not only be documenting the grievances of citizens from across Rajasthan, “but will also analyze the complaints at the control room, which has been set up in Jaipur for this purpose,” Goswami explained. “In order to build pressure on the state government to pass the long-pending law, the volunteers at the control room will be following up on each complaint with the concerned government department.”

Activists and workers plan to demand their rights until the government concedes. The organizations are hopeful the bill will be passed during the next state assembly session, which is likely to be held between July and August.

“Fixing accountability is for the poor of the country,” Shenoy said. “We still cannot say we are living in a democracy. The law can change how we perceive the government. With each step we have taken, we have achieved more than we set out to get. We will continue with our agitation.”

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