PATNA: Amid the poll fever in Bihar, several activists, intellectuals and students from across the country, including JNU scholars, are these days camping in the nondescript Ratnauli village in Muzaffarpur district to campaign for someone. And no, he is not Kanhaiya Kumar, the former JNU Students’ Union president, who was the toast of activists and intellectuals during the 2019 general elections.
The candidate is a Class 7 dropout electrician-turned-MGNREGA activist, Sanjay Sahni. He is in fray from Kurhani assembly seat in Muzaffarpur as an independent candidate.
So, what’s it about 39-year-old Sahni that has drawn renowned social economist Jean Dreze and students from prestigious institutions towards his campaign?
Well, it’s his exemplary work as a MGNREGA activist who has not only busted many anomalies and irregularities in its implementation but also helped hundreds of poor people find work under the scheme.
It was a chance discovery of mismanagement and swindling of MGNREGA funds by elected representatives and district administration in his village that prompted Sahni to quit his electrician’s job in Delhi and return to Bihar in 2011. On digging deeper, he found large-scale loot of the funds. That’s when he decided to float MNREGA Watch to spread awareness among labourers and to scrutinise policy implementation.
To begin with, Sahni targeted the spurious liquor business in the district, which had affected hundreds of families. This won him the trust of rural womenfolk who joined his collective as volunteers in large numbers. With their help, he started spreading awareness among people and raising voice against the irregularities in MGNREGA and other schemes, particularly the PDS.
Independent candidate banks on fellow activists
The MNREGA Watch has helped the labourers get more than 50,000 mandays of works.
The number of volunteers swelled after the mass return of migrant workers, rendered jobless following the Covid-induced lockdown, with demand for MGNREGA work rising. It’s this army of volunteers that has been campaigning for Sahni since the beginning of the year as they wanted him to contest as a representative of poor and migrant labourers.
Locals accompany Sahni to canvass for votes, donate and arrange food and small vehicles like bikes and autos for his campaign at their own cost.
“I decided to contest because I thought it will be proper to raise voice against MGNREGA frauds in the assembly,” said Sahni, whose main rival is sitting BJP MLA Kedar Gupta. Dreze has been helping Sahni formulate his strategy and chalk out the issues that affect the locals.
He advises Sahni and guides the volunteers to manage the poll campaign on social media and through people- to-people contacts.
“A strong sense of solidarity to Sanjay prevails among the people here,” said Dreze. Shailja Tondon, who studied at JNU and now works with the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities in Delhi, said: “The reason behind coming to support Sanjay is to be a part of a counter movement against the systematic attack on democracy. MGNREGAThe movement is led by women who are defying an oppressive system.”
Zara Khan, a graduate from Rishi Valley School in Hyderabad; Nikhil Bhardwaj, studying at the ISI at Bangalore; Achyutha, a passout of Kodaikanal International School; Vipul, a researcher associated with the Right to Food campaign in Jharkhand; Anushka Kumari, a graduated in physics from Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College and Avinash Kumar, an activist from Patna, are among those who are campaigning for Sahni, inspired by his crusade to weed out corruption from MGNREGA.
“He deserves the support in making the system corruption free,” said Anushka.