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Activist fights to overcome 'obstacles' in implementing rural jobs guarantee scheme

By Arika Roy* 

At six in the morning in Araria, Bihar, Ashish Ranjan and his wife Kamayani Swami were woken up by a loud knock on their door. A family was at their doorstep seeking help after being assaulted in an ongoing caste conflict. The upper-caste perpetrators had filed an FIR of assault against the victims to add to the family's woes.
"Anyone can file an FIR to torment the other party further and gain leverage for an out-of-court settlement", Ashish told me. The month that followed was inundated with long run-ins with police, press and courtrooms. "The difficult part was to explain to the victim's family that they had to get bail in the situation", he added.
Joint secretary of the Jan Jagran Shakti Abhiyan (JJSA), a registered trade union of unorganized sector workers, Ashish's social motto is, "Nyay samanta ho adhikar, aisa banayein hum sansar", roughly translating to: justice equality is our right and that's the world we should build. "It's not just a slogan to make us feel good. It is a gist of everything we stand for and work towards", he claimed.
JJSA's primary task is to ease out the process of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) job filing for workers lacking job and social security. They also work towards helping the largely illiterate rural population in filing Right to Information (RTI) applications and ensuring the implementation of the right to food, demanding the correct quantity, quality and price being charged in a public distribution system.
Ashish insists that the organization works in silos, dealing with every issue as a different unit situated in a particular geography.
In 2008, Ashish and his wife abandoned their comfortable life in the US and began their journey in Araria. "It was difficult in the initial years as basic necessities were unavailable. Electricity was intermittent, communication was difficult, and the resources were limited," he Ashish, reflecting upon his origins as a social worker.
Nudged by his ideology to give back to society, the final push came with a MGNREGS survey he had to conduct under the guidelines of top development economist Jean Dreze, one of the key contributors to the foundation of the scheme. They were supposed to track down the number of applications and job provisions when they soon realized that it did not follow any process.
The MGNREGS powered through the right to work is intended to provide 100 days of guaranteed employment to any rural household whose adult members are willing to do any unskilled manual work. The primary issue with the implementation is that the elected representatives do not file the demand for jobs because, if they accept it, they will have to ensure the work is completed through an official process.
As an initial task, the organization approached 1,000 representatives to issue a dated receipt for work. Out of 1,000, only one of them provided a receipt but demanded it back an hour later. As part of the organization’s induction process, a new volunteer is asked to get a similar receipt from the local elected representative to become acquainted with the ground realities."They never get it", he quipped. 
Beyond registering the demand, the challenge also occurs at the job allocation level. Sometimes, officials allocate short projects without informing the workers. Upon contesting the lack of jobs, they claim that the worker never turned up for the service. Such obstacles are laid down to create barriers in a system that never operates the way it is supposed to.
Originally from the small town of Saharsa and having completed his primary education from St Michael's School, Patna, Ashish has a deep connection with his homeland. "I feel like the youngsters are taught from their childhood to seek work outside the state. All my friends and peers left Bihar never to return or give back. If you look at the villages now, there are only women, children, and older people. Of course, the situation has changed, due to the pandemic. Yet, there is hardly any valuable work."
Ashish's family members, relatives and friends frowned upon his decision to leave his cushy job to begin social work in Araria. People didn't seem to understand how someone could make such a decision.
With his personal phone number available on the organization's website, Ashish is just a phone call away from those seeking his help. He insists that the usual process towards reaching out is through a grievance cell, but Ashish likes the personal connection.
During the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, his whole day was consumed with addressing distressed migrant calls. "We had a case in Haryana, where a man had a broken limb. All his roommates had left for their hometowns as the nation went into full lockdown. We tried getting him food through our friends in Haryana, but it was not easy to manage. Finally, we were able to receive him through a traveller bus that was supposed to come down."
In a poor state like Bihar, where poverty is in abundance and corruption occurs at the grassroots level, there are also caste-based challenges that they must face. "It's not a bed of roses, but in life, nothing is. Bringing about change is a slow process. It lasts beyond a person's lifetime."
"Sometimes, we work hard towards achieving a particular level of service, and then a new government official joins, or a new political leader is elected, and it is back to square one. It moves in a circle," he confessed in a matter-of-fact tone. "However, the centre of the cycle shifts a little towards betterment after every iteration."
Indeed, in a world of apathy and choosing the path of least resistance, Ashish Ranjan appears to have mastered the art of bringing about change which he wishes to see happening.
---
*PGP 2020-22, Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore

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