The latest strategy adopted by civil society groups to empower villagers to claim their rights under the rural job scheme is to form trade unions.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has converted many villagers in India into card-holders, who will get a minimum of 100 days work every year. Since that is not happening so easily, the strategy devised by civil society leaders is to unite the villagers into cadres, on the lines of trade unions.
This is not new. Many villages already have cadres of political groups such as the CPI(M) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. But here, the unions are being formed by NGOs.
The drive, led by top activists, will create many a local Joan of Arc who can at a moment’s notice get entire villages to take to the streets, file petitions in courts and make it difficult for the state to ignore their concerns.
Leading the effort is Magsaysay awardee Aruna Roy, who will mark the completion of two decades of her movement, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), by announcing the formation of a trade union of NREGA workers in Rajasthan. The sangathan is already in the process of setting up a unit of the union in every village in the state.
The model is tried and tested. In Gujarat, NGO Disha has united forest produce gatherers and NREGA workers into unions.
A recent seminar at the Allahabad University had many activists and academics discussing the need for such unions. Doubts were expressed that vested interests might abuse the power derived from the people.
The seminar was organised by the university and led by one of its high-profile faculty members, Jean Drèze. James Herenj of the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan of Jharkhand, who has been working with Drèze, has formed a NREGA union. He said he was inspired by Anuradha Talwar’s Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti, which formed a trade union of NREGA workers affiliated to the New Trade Union Initiative.
Abhay Singh of the Navjeevan Mahila Okkoota of Karnaktaka says activists and NGOs cannot be always there to help the workers. The best way out, he said, was to help them form unions that would help them claim their rights in return for an annual membership fee. He has formed groups of 50 members in villages in Raichur. These groups are led by educated members, who helps them in collective bargaining.
In Arharia, activist couple Ashish and Kamayani are enrolling villagers for a trade union. Another such union is coming up in villages of Chhattisgarh.
On March 14 and 15, many of these NGOs gather in Patna with the primary structure and ideas of their fledgling trade unions of NREGA workers.
The first impulse of Planning Commission Member Abhijit Sen, who was part of the consultation in Allahabad, was to say no one would lose anything if these unions went on a strike and that these would fail.
But activists are determined to go ahead. MKSS, for instance, is shattered by the failure of social audits in Rajasthan due to opposition by sarpanches. “We can’t fight challenges alone. We need to struggle through unions. It’s a political space for workers. We may fight other citizenship rights also through unions,” said Nikhil De of MKSS.
That will be real power to the people.