June 1, 2012

Decoding a Dharna

Pension Parishad: Background

Delhi Dharna at Jantar Mantar*
The Pension Parishad is a collective of peoples movements, farmer and worker rights groups, single women associations, autorickshaw and porter unions, NREGA workers, street vendors, foot path traders and other unorganised sector workers from across the country who have come together under this coalition to demand a universal old age pension from the State. The idea for this Parishad was first discussed at a meeting attended by over ten thousand workers at the Hamal Panachayat in Pune in February, followed by a workshop to discuss a charter of demands at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in April and was launched formally with a five day dharna at Jantar Mantar, Delhi in May. Over these four months, what became apparent very quickly, is that for these groups working in the unorganised sector, concern for old age pension has been a recurring and important mobilizing issue and is fundamental to the acknowledgement of their work to the economy and its growth.

Currently, the Ministry of Rural Development gives a pension of Rs. 200 a month for those people below poverty line above 60 years of age, and Rs. 500 a month to those above 80 years of age, with State governments having the option to contribute more. The number of beneficiaries of this scheme are 1.65 crore, while the figure of the elderly in the country is close to 10 crore people, the second largest population of elderly in the world. The main demands of the Pension Parishad are to universalize pensions, as it has been well documented that Below Poverty Line restrictions are extremely damaging in their use to disburse social sector entitlements. Secondly, to establish a principle; government employees receive a pension of half their last salary, all unorganised sector workers must get a minimum of half of the minimum wage as a pension. Thirdly, this must not be a stand alone figure, but linked to the Consumer Price Index, like NREGA wages, which the Prime Minister has finally issued a directive to do. 

For me the most significant aspects of the Pension Parishad, were building democratic, political alliances across classes and sectors, the placing of the State (its exact power, workings and shortcomings) in the context of this growing nation and the use of a Dharna as a democratic tool for engaging with this compromised State.

Building Alliances

Participating organisations delivered testimonies on the Manch
The rainbow quality of the coalition that makes the Pension Parishad cannot be stressed enough. The organisations include Ekai Nari Sangathan (Single Womens Association) from Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative (TAI) working with sex workers, transgender and HIV positive communities, Sahariya Jan Adhikar Manch (working for empowerment of Shahriya communities, a primitive tribal group) from Uttar Pradesh, Hamal Panchayat (Manual load carriers and porters from Pune), Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (Paper, Glass, Waste Pickers Union from Pune), Adivasi Adhikar Abhiyan (Campaign for Adivasi Rights) from Gujarat, SEWA (women self empowerment association) and several others. These are the kinds of groups who are politically active, who have the mandate of the people they represent, and as is evident from their nomenclature, work on a variety of worker issues.

Two recent works of non-fiction (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, A Free Man) have actively engaged with the urban working class. The mode of engagement of these accounts, and their distinction from the political work of a parishad, is worth noting. In ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo writes about the lives of women and children is a Mumbai slum, Annawadi, which is near the international airport and surrounded by five star hotels. She details and evokes the realness of the everyday life people live there, including a wheeler-dealer Shiv Sena sahayak lady who apart from running "a school for slum children with donor money" does everything she can to stay connected and powerful and emerge from the desperate poverty she lives in. In ‘A Free Man’, Aman Sethi attempts to trace the timeline of a mazdoor, a daily labourer in Delhi, during the intensive face lift years for the Commonwealth Games. 

The similarities between these two writers and their work is obvious, as they manage to draw connections, with the vast underworld of people in this country. At the Jaipur Literary Festival this year, where they were on the same panel, Boo comments that their work makes for “really good companion books.” The dearth of such accounts is telling in itself, and these are important books in their refusal to be sentimental or to theorise on the poor and working class. After being part of a dharna though, the contact of understanding made through these books seems distressingly benign. Engagement in the mode of a Parishad, of organising politically and collectively, has something at stake for everyone involved and therefore is a reciprocal engagement and consequently delivers more tangibly and strongly in favour of the worker groups themselves.

Deconstructing the State

Parliament Street police station, symbolically the closest you can get to parliament
Tangentially, in the ensuing discussions around these books, Sethi reviews Boo’s book for The Hindu, and writes about the diminishing powers of the state in face of the enormous private capital and influence; “Today, the only thing that the state can offer its citizens is the dream of its own eventual destruction: that it shall ritualistically purge itself from society, thereby making room for private players…but much like the law of conservation of energy, the nexus between capital and the state is neither created nor destroyed — it merely changes form...This predictably creates a conundrum for those seeking to build traditional networks of resistance like unions, or engaged in expanding legal frameworks where everything from work to nourishment is defined as a set of legally enforceable 'rights'. What happens to the politics of appeals and writ petitions in a global economy where the judiciary is compromised and worker militancy is violently suppressed by the state?”

His claim, of the nexus between capital and state, merely changing form, is worryingly true and visible. I would like to quickly put forward Amitav Ghosh’s comments on this, (with reference to freedom of expression at the Jaipur Literary festival this year but applicable elsewhere); "..threats..today come mainly from private and sectional interests – fundamentalist groups, identity-based organizations, political extremists, corporations and so on. These may be ‘non-state actors’ but they can be very effective in limiting the freedom of speech..today the role of government is often limited to an insidious collusion with various constituencies. Public pressure and criticism can, and must, be exercised to prevent, or at least impede, this collusion."

the role of the government as insidious collusion between constituencies, and Mr. Sethi asking what happens to traditional networks of resistance; with the changing nature of the State, modes of engagement also find ways to evolve to better respond to the non traditional State. One example of this change, before getting to the dharna, is the adaptation of our progressive laws. The Grievance Redress legislation (currently in parliament), is designed to to bring accountability in governance and logically follows from the transparency sought via the Right to Information Act. While the RTI only applies to public authorities, now with a series of public functions and services (sadak, bijli, paani) being provided by private bodies, the Grievance Redress law has expanded the definition of public authority to cover "organisation or body corporate in its capacity as an instrumentality of “State” rendering services of public utility in India".)

Taking into account all the flags raised on the changing proportions of state and private capital influence, a dharna demanding universal old age pension from the state, is still an enormously powerful tool and I would like to detail how.

Dharna as a Tool of Engagement with State

Ratifying demands with a show of hands

Water bandobast & people sleeping

People serving each other and eating
Ram Rehman (of Indian Ocean) and Shankerji (of MKSS) at Dharna
Several of the participating organisations have been involved in dharnas before, including the MKSS who sat on a historic forty day dharna at Beawar in 1996 to demand to see muster rolls of state sponsored work sites for non payment of minimum wages, which ultimately lead to the articulation and demand for a right to information legislation. Sixteen years on, the Pension Parishad empirically shows the enormously important engagements that we still have with the State. 

The sheer dynamism of a dharna is addictive, and an MKSS saathi says, “dharna ek nasha hai, yeh kaam ka ek nasha hai”. A dharna means a sit-in, an occupation of a public space of sorts, and has a bandwidth of ongoing activity; people live at a dharna, they listen, they talk, they eat, bathe, sleep, sing, dance and sweat it out. Moreover, the occupation of public space collectively, where anyone can come, listen, criticise, provoke and everybody is witness and participating in the process, gives rise to a sense of community very quickly

The issue of space for a political movement has been re-imagined by the Arab Spring and Occupy  protests across the globe over the past year. As Arun Gupta, the co-founder of The Occupied Wall Street Journal notes, "[with]...the proliferation of virtual spaces, it is easy to forget taking collective action in a shared physical space is how social change happens from below...The places where Americans can and do gather in large numbers, such as parks, squares, factories, shopping centres, the workplace, stadiums, schools and places of worship are almost all privatised and subject to strict legal and physical regulation. Nonetheless, Occupy's future success is based on finding forms of space where it can reproduce itself." This video, of millions of marching protesters in Bahrain in April this year, is so visually striking because of its large numbers, as well as the sense of space that they are occupying. Egypts revolution was very much about occupying a physical space as well, and the images of Tahrir Square beamed across the world are indelible with the revolution itself. Articulating Delhi's political space in this context, Gautam Bahn, who works on Urban Studies and Planing, says "[it]...need not be but often necessarily is deeply physical – the presence of the bodies on the street is as near an experiential sense of the “public”, in one sense, that one can get. Public spaces are the heart of challenging the centralization of control and of creating cultures of equity and dignity – be it in the city or in the nation-state." For the rate and the brutality with which democratic spaces are being silenced all over the world, being acknowledged and allowed to engage with the democratic process with an assertion on this scale is reaffirming, even if it is within the confines of Jantar Mantar.

A dharna encapsulates an entire process - articulating and debating demands, mandating these demands by the people and representative organisations, presenting this case to ministers and parliamentarians across political parties; if it is a relevant issue with large numbers of peoples interests aligned with it, then it gathers a  momentum of its own. It is constantly visited by supporters (from political parties, universities, friends, even Ram Rehman of Indian Ocean, who did an impromptu concert), but apart from the dharna, and its physical space, there is a slew of activity that happens outside as well. Meeting formally with ministers is important, as well as keeping up regular dispatches on the ongoing activity. 

The  press also plays a large part in this, and this links back to the increasing influence that exists outside the State. If national television and newspapers are privatised and are run by and cater to a largely middle class audience, then part of the battle is to get these sorts of poor "electoral" issues covered by them. Having said that, there are no illusions that  being covered by press or responded to favourably politically, ratified the reality of the dharna. The lives of the people demanding this pension are unbearably real. Sonthi Bai, well over eighty years, placed her bony hands on my shoulder, as she kept repeating her name and her village, reassuring me that she could be found there anytime. Sonthi Bai, Khadath Sonti Bai, as though her name itself wasn’t important, just that I should be able to find her, incase this pension ever came through. 

Sonthi Bai

What I took away from the pension parishad dharna, was that of the people who came demanding a pension, far from being "unemployed bums", they are people who have worked all their lives and for whom this pension is matter between utter destitution and sustenance. Nobody chooses to be poor or destitute, it is the fallout of being at the very bottom of a contorted, powerful system.

For those of us who are on the right side of this system, and who have lives predominantly outside the State (for our food, health care, education and work), it’s easy to discredit the dependence of millions of people on it, as a basic minimum for survival. A state is no more than  people operating within institutions and structures, and every person within this State can stake a claim to it, to its ideology and functioning. Living in a democratic space means that the State is accountable to us, as peoples movements have articulated time and again, and we must continue to design and shape it to work on basic principles of equality and justice and deliver at least basic minimums.

There are many policy bodies who have done significant work in developing a social security net for the unorganised sector, and there are already several existing pensions schemes in states. What the Pension Parishad seeks to put forward, is that while the contributory schemes being developed warrant full support, there has to be a base minimum that we provide to our elderly citizens. For this, it will have to be an entitlement, and the notoriously callous system will have to work to deliver these pensions to the elderly. There will no doubt be financial, economic, administrative and legal expertise needed to flesh out how this can potentially be done, but the Pension Parishad as representative of this vast body of poor elderly people in the country, will constantly insist on making it an electoral issue and democratically demand a pension for all.

* all photos are credited to Digvijay Singh. for more images: https://plus.google.com/photos/113762717967284928587/albums/5741582219603844609

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