Activating the Strength of an Awakened Citizenry: Taking Democracy to the Grassroots

RTI yatra at Kusumpur Pahari in October 2018. Image - Bharat Dogra

To strengthen grassroots democracy citizens need to be much more alert to resist irregularities and corruption as well as to protect their rights and entitlements. This is all the more necessary in slums and hut colonies where poor, illiterate or less educated people are being cheated all the time by unscrupulous powerful persons who do not allow their welfare and rights-based benefits to reach them.

‘Satark Nagrik Sangathan’ (SKS – Organization of Alert Citizens) is an organization which has been working for nearly 18 years in many hut-colonies of Delhi to empower some of the poorest citizens, particularly the women, to defend their rights and benefits.

More recently this organization has been active in seeking justice and relief for victims of riots as well as people very badly affected by sudden imposition of prolonged lockdown.

Anjali Bhardwaj, the founder coordinator of SKS was closely associated with the movement for enacting of strong RTI (Right to Information) legislation in India. After this law was enacted she started going to hut-colonies to explore possibilities of using the new law for the benefits of the people living in some of the poorest settlements .

She soon realized that it is essential to find out ways of using the RTI law for resolving problems which were prioritized by the poorest people. To take this forward, she looked out for involving men and women from within slum communities. Soon several members from communities including Ashok, Pushpa, Sunita and Kusum Lata had joined the SKS team. In addition educated young women like Aditi Dwivedi provided support for youth-related activities.

Kusum Lata provides a clear example of how those who are from very difficult socio-economic conditions can also emerge as very inspiring social activists with some help and encouragement. As a single women (deserted by her husband), Kusum was bringing up her children in very difficult circumstances, but at the same time still found the time to take up some social responsibilities.  When SKS helped and trained her for a wider social role, she progressed very rapidly and played an important mobilization role in several hut colonies. She was selected for the Democracy Fellowship Programme. Here guided by such senior social activists as Aruna Roy, her social work acquired a wider vision and she now speaks with confidence about not just protecting the right of ‘slum-dwellers’ but also “protecting and strengthening the  constitution of India.”

With a team combining some highly educated persons as well as activists from slum and hut communities, SKS could pick up most relevant issues with its ‘ears to the ground’ ability and approach. RTI was used to obtain stock registers and sales registers of ration shops. Corruption was detected by comparing the two. Public hearings were organised to share the findings with the entire community. Culprits were also given an opportunity to provide their defense.

There was significant progress. When some corrupt dealers faced punitive actions, corruption levels started coming down. Some other cases dragged on for a longer time.

Later POS machines were introduced at ration shops and ration was given only if thumb prints matched, leading to denial of rations to many people. SKS resisted this and this practice was withdrawn in many shops.

When several highly deserving senior citizens were denied pensions, RTI was filed on the status of their applications and asking reasons why some pensions started earlier had been stopped abruptly.  In several cases justice for highly deserving elderly persons, single women and disability affecting persons could be secured.

SKS believed in listening to what community members said. One day a woman from a hut colony said, “Even my child gets a regular report-card from his school. Our elected representatives have much more important roles. Why don’t they have report cards?”

This question of an illiterate hut woman may have been ignored elsewhere, but SKS realised the importance of her question which was basically a very important issue of public accountability. Later SKS went ahead and prepared report cards of local councillors and MLA, raising issues like presence in legislature, active role such as raising relevant questions and utilisation of fund. When an MLA’s report card indicated very low presence in the legislature, he seriously said to SKS activists that if they had informed him about the preparation of report card much earlier, he would have attended the legislature more regularly!

SKS has also taken a strong stand on issues like resisting communalism and ensuring social harmony in difficult times. Its activists tried their best to check the spread of communal violence . However when terrible violence actually took place they volunteered to prepare reports on the ground reality so that public and government attention could be drawn to the extent of the great damage that had been done so that a strong case could be built for  extensive relief  and rehabilitation effort. Following COVID outbreak again SKS became active in getting justice for those who were suffering the most after the imposition of sudden but very long lockdown. As the organisation faces up to increasing difficulties and challenges in coming days, it can call upon the strength of the strong commitment and courage of its earlier work.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives. His recent book on survival issues and people’s response titled Planet in Peril has been published by Vitasta, Delhi.