“We want employment,” Dehu Devi was clear about what she wanted from the next Indian government. The Bharatiya Janata Party dispensation, she said, has failed on this front. “This government is not running the scheme,” she added, referring to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which assures at least 100 days of work a year. “I worked for three weeks and then I stopped getting any work. How will I feed my children?”
To demand a better deal, Devi, 30, from Rajasthan’s Rajsamand, joined thousands of labourers, farmers and activists – from Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra – for Jan Sarokar 2019, or People’s Agenda, at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium on Saturday. It was organised by a collective of farmer organisations and civil society groups.
They demanded that the government respect the rights of Adivasis, Dalits, women; ensure delivery of healthcare, education, food, pensions; support agriculture; effect land and banking reforms; prevent violence against the marginalised and minority communities.
Jan Sarokar also released a “people’s chargesheet” against the Narendra Modi government, and sought a commitment from Opposition parties to include its demands in their “Common Minimum Programme”.
The programme was attended by several Opposition leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, Digvijaya Singh and Ahmed Patel of the Congress, Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party, along with civil society activists such as Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar, Bezwada Wilson and TM Krishna.
“This was something new in scale and nature,” said Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a farmers’ movement which spearheaded the campaign for the Right to Information Act. “People from across social movements and campaigns came together for this.”
Asked about the presence of Opposition leaders at the demonstration, Dey said the BJP threatens the struggle for a just socioeconomic order, so it is necessary to bring other parties around “to engage in an accountable manner”.
‘Kaam do, vote lo’
Nearly every protesting farmer or labourer Scroll.in spoke with complained above all about the lack of employment. And it is what many of them said will decide their vote in this election.
Ashabai Sambhaji Dokhe succinctly, “Kaam do, vote lo.” Give us work, get our votes.
“We do not receive our salaries on time and now the work is being contracted out more,” said Dokhe, 40, a municipal waste picker from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. “We want an end to this. Our work has increased under this government while the pay has not. And everything has become so much more expensive.”
Many farmers complained about the “menace of stray cattle” that has resulted from the BJP’s crackdown on the cattle trade in much of the country. Harilal Dhurve, 64, from Mandla in Madhya Pradesh said they have to “stay up all night to protect our crops”.
The proliferation of stray cattle has created another problem, added Dhurve, who lives near the Kanha Tiger Reserve. “More animals are coming out from the forest because of the stray cattle,” he explained. “These are our biggest problems right now.”
Uttar Pradesh has a similar problem. “The biggest issue in the state right now is the cow,” said Richa Singh, 50, a social worker from Sitapur. “It is a very scary situation that farmers are in today.”
Another major problem, Richa Singh said, is that payments under the employment guarantee scheme “are always late”. “There has been a lot of migration from Uttar Pradesh because of the poor functioning of this scheme,” she added. “There is also the issue of fear. There are small changes taking place in areas that many do not know about. It could be a change in the name of a local university or a bank. It’s a strange situation.”
Several labourers Scroll.in spoke with demanded that the rural employment scheme be properly funded and their daily wages hiked.
“Our sarpanch said there is no budget to run the scheme anymore and it has been this way for five years,” said Tipu Devi, 35, from Pali, Rajasthan. “We have no work and no income. There is no work for us in the fields either. We want employment.”
Mina Devi, 55, from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, echoed the demand. “We get just 20 days of work a year. We need much more than that,” she said. “Apart from work, we also need water in our area. There is a shortage.”
‘Announcements are just lollipops’
The “people’s chargesheet” highlighted mob lynchings that have taken place in the country over the last five years and demanded an end to violence against minority and marginalised communities.
“This government wants to make an issue out of religion,” alleged Geegraj Verma, a social worker from Jaipur, Rajasthan. “When the BJP came to power, people thought they would get jobs. Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities thought they would get protection. But there are still several false cases registered against people from those communities. When the Congress came to power in Rajasthan, they said they would withdraw all such cases, but they too have not done so yet.”
Another social worker, Pushpa, from Almora in Uttarakhand, said the demands of participants from her state include shelters for widowed women. “Not just shelters, but also pensions and food rations,” Pushpa, 40, added. “We also want healthcare benefits for women. If you are not registered under Ayushman Bharat scheme, it’s difficult for a poor person to get affordable treatment. We know this government’s announcements are just lollipops.”