The Modi government came into power riding on the popular slogan of ‘Ab Ki Baar, Modi Sarkar’, and promised to lead us all to ‘Acche Din’ with a flick of our PM’s magic wand of ‘development’. What followed has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some of even those who were cogwheels in Mr. Modi’s chariot to electoral glory. What went wrong, you ask? Well, the government seems to have taken the people for a ride only to cozy up to those who oiled the machines of the said chariot and led it to victory (the people present in the march believe those were the corporations and big businesses who have made their lives miserable – Ambani, Adani et al, I am of-course just being the messenger here!). Little surprise then that the people took the slogan and cleverly turned it on its head – ‘Ab Ki Baar Hamara Adhikar’ they roared in unison marching in the heart of the capital.
NDTV reports that ‘hundreds of people converged’, if only they had a closer look at their own footage of the event, they would know better. Was this just an oversight, or is it yet another proof of how the mainstream media is complicit in the criminal subjugation of peoples’ rights and silencing of their voices of resistance and assertion? I accompanied thousands of people (more than 30000 according to most people) from across the country who came together under the banner of ‘National Alliance of People’s Movements‘ for the ‘adhikar rally’ that marched from Ambedkar Stadium and culminated into a massive public meeting at Jantar Mantar. In my 5 years of active participation in various movements in the city, and hence being a regular at Jantar Mantar, I can tell you that never had I seen the place bursting at the seams like it was yesterday. There was no place to sit, and the ground wasn’t visible as thousands of people were trying to squeeze in and make room for more to fit in. Thousands of people poured in from across the country, by various means (trains, buses etc.) even when most could hardly afford the trip. Many of them even camped on the streets and spent their night sleeping in the cold Delhi night with nothing but plastic sheets as cover. The fact that the mainstream media chose to ignore or misreport this extraordinary solidarity movement is testimony to the fact that the voices of the oppressed are often deliberately silenced or manipulated by big media as per their vested interests.
Coming back to the Adhikar rally, the near 4KM distance that we marched was an inspiring experience. Narmada Bachao Andolan, Pension Parishad, Anganwadi, Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity and a total of around 170 rights based organisations joined in to assert their rights and demand accountability and justice from the government. They sang songs of resistance, shouted slogans, raised their fists in anger, and swept the roads like an angry tidal wave. Many walked barefoot, some brought their little children along, some others carried bags of grain and other symbolic objects to make the message clear.
The placards and banners that they carried had very specific demands and questions for the government, protesting against the dilution of pro-poor policies to make way for big money. The slogans questioned the policies that the present government is hurriedly pushing through, and the others which it is trying to dilute and maim. The government has taken a U-turn and is going back on the very policies that the BJP supported when it was in the opposition.
The meeting at Jantar Mantar saw popular mass leaders like Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy, Kavita Krishnan, D Raja and many others addressing a huge audience on many issues that concern them. The meeting began with the host listing various issues that they had gathered to discuss. Here’s a brief look at the points raised, along with some pictures:
1) Land Rights: Many of those present have been displaced, their lands taken away from them, and others who weren’t paid proper compensation. The speaker explained how the Land Acquisition Act was being weakened to favour big business at the cost of the land and livelihood of the working class and the poor.
2) Workers Rights: The proposed changes to the Contract Labour Act and its repercussions were discussed. A majority of the workers are now being employed as contract workers in the unorganised workforce and every effort is being made to stop them from organising and forming unions to safeguard their interests and assert their rights. 8 hour working day and a day off in a week should be ensured for all workers, including domestic workers. We need to have a scientifically calculated minimum wage in the country, which should be inflation indexed. The calculation for minimum wages should be on the basis of 240 work days in a 365 day year. There is need for an Urban Right To Work, along with unemployment allowance.
3) Rights over the forest: Forests are home to many adivasis who are now being driven out of their homes to accommodate profit making corporations. Their lands forcibly taken, their mountains mined, and their rivers poisoned. Efforts are on to dilute the powers of the Gram Sabha that gives power to the locals to have a say on their habitat and natural resources. We have all seen the power of the Gram Sabha in Niyamgiri, where the Dongria Kondh drove out Vedanta. Also, care needs to be taken to ensure that the Gram Sabhas are not manipulated by the powerful and local elites repressing voices of the dalits and adivasis.
4) Right To Information: The RTI Act is a very useful weapon in the hands of the people to know what the Govt. is up to. Communication from the govt. is very crucial for awareness and development, and for the people to rightfully demand answers. Reportedly, efforts are on to dilute this act as well.
5) Right To Food: The National Food Security Act has not taken off at all, the deadline has been postponed twice. The data from the Socio-Economic Caste Census has not been released. Support to farmers in terms of a guaranteed Minimum Support Price (MSP) and decentralized procurement are issues that need urgent attention. India has the highest malnutrition and maternal mortality rates, the maternity entitlements promised in the NFSA (the scheme hasn’t even been announced yet) should be paid heed to immediately. Children’s right to food, entitlements under the NFSA, have no rules or processes. The quality of food provided in schools and Anganwadi centres should be improved – include eggs, which is nutritive and popular with children.
6) Right To Education: Almost 1 lakh government schools across the country have been closed down – 22% in Rajasthan – most of the schools that have been closed down are those that were being accessed by Dalits, Adivasis and girls. Changes are being proposed in the RTE Act to make it more friendly to private schools. The govt. should bring under 6 and 14-18 year olds under the purview of RTE as well. Inadequate number of teachers and a dire lack of teacher training has been a huge problem. About 6 lakh seats in private schools need to be filled to meet the requirement of 25% seats reservation for EWS children as per the RTE Act. Shouldn’t the government focus more on taking responsibility and strengthen the educational infrastructure to provide free quality education to all, more investment in the education sector is needed to facilitate this. Also, an important point raised was how we need to be very wary of communal propaganda creeping into school textbooks. We need to resist this attempt at saffronisation of education.
7) Right To Health: There have been reports of proposed cuts in spending on the Health sector where the need is to at least double the spending. The rampant commercialization and privatisation of this sector needs to be checked and the government should work extensively in improving the condition of hospitals, build more of them, and provide free healthcare and medicines. The Clinical Establishments Act is also not being implemented. What’s even more ironic is that the BJP promised free medicines in its manifesto, now they say only 50 medicines will be on the free list and even those will only be available at PHCs, so inpatients will not get any free medicines.
8) Right To Pension: The pension amount, as of Union Budget 2012-13 is INR 200 per month per person from 60 – 79 years and INR 500 per month per person for those 80 years and above, and the access to even this is not very easy. This needs to be increased as it is not possible to survive on such a meager amount. There is need for universal pension scheme. If Govt. employees get 50% of their last drawn wage as pension, the same should be applied to the poor – 50% of the minimum wages. Pension should be made available to all aged citizens, single women, people living with disabilities, transgenders and sex workers. The procedure to avail this should also be made simpler.
9) Right To Protest: The renewed offensive on the right to protest needs to stop immediately. People resisting the destruction of natural resources, and fighting for their rights to livelihood are often punished and silenced for demanding justice or even posing questions.
10) Women’s rights: Women’s right to freedom without fear and a dignified livelihood should be taken care of. With the increasing instances of violence against women and their systematic subjugation, there is an urgent need to take concrete measure and implement policies that ensure that the discrimination and subjugation is put to an end.
11) Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and other minority rights: The communal polarisation by the RSS and their ploy to strengthen hierarchies of caste should not be tolerated. We must resolve to reject all such hierarchies, and defeat the RSS ideology. Also, the factors facilitating this structural oppression need to be fought with vigour. Ambedkar’s vision of the annihilation of caste is the way forward.
Viable solutions were also proposed to facilitate this change. India is among the lowest spenders on social services in proportion to the GDP. We also have one of the lowest tax-GDP ratios in the world. Resource mobilization through progressive taxation is the need of the hour. Tax exemption and other concessions to the corporate sector needs to be reduced; a lot of resources, including cheap giveaways, go into this. Budget cuts and low funding can not be justified.
The massive intersectional solidarity in the event further strengthens my belief that a mass peoples’ movement to assert rights and demand justice is the only way forward to egalitarianism and social justice. ‘Ladke lenge hamara adhikar, hum cheen ke lenge hamara adhikar’ as they said. For the people present, the state has become the oppressor, and as they say ‘freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor’, hence the need for such assertion and solidarity, for it is in fact about freedom, the freedom to live a dignified life, to exercise their constitutional rights and demand social justice.